Q. My husband and I have separated, and pretty much agreed to work everything out without going to Court. But I would like some information about how any support we agree upon is taxed.

Child support is not taxable to the recipient, nor is it deductible by the payor, unless a court order or agreement specifies that child and spouse support will be paid together as Family Support.

Spousal support, or "alimony" as it is known in some states, is taxable to the recipient and deductible to the payor as long as certain Internal Revenue Code requirements are met. It is important that you obtain a professional explanation and review of these requirements in terms of what you write up in the settlement agreement (the agreement should be filed with the Court), because in some situations people have the highly unpleasant surprise of believing their support agreement passes muster only to find years later that it violated one of the provisions of the IRC - if that happens, the paying spouse may be forced to recapture the deductions in such a way that they are denied by the IRS, which now means not only that the payor owes monies for increased taxes, but they also owe substantial penalties.

To be deductible spousal support must meet the requirements of IRC section 71. These were established by the Domestic Relations Tax Reform Act of 1984, also known as DRTRA (pronounced "durtra"). The general requirements are that the spousal support obligation must be set forth in a written instrument (i.e., a Marital Termination Agreement), the payments must terminate at death, the payments must be in cash (and not as a swap of property, although it is possible to structure a property settlement in periodic payments of spousal support if done properly), and the parties must reside in separate households.

A common mistake includes "front-loading" or concentrating spousal support in the period immediately after divorce. Spousal support awards that decrease by no more than $10,000 per consecutive years are usually safe, but if you are contemplating a progressive decrease in spousal support over some years, you must have this agreement examined by a qualified professional in order to assure you are protected - this could be an accountant.

A common inadvertent mistake is to terminate spousal support on a date coinciding with a child's age of majority (turning 18). The IRS views this as an attempt to classify or hide what is really child support as deductible spousal support, and when this occurs the IRS may declare these payments that you believed were alimony for tax purposes all to have been child support - regardless of your true intentions - and so disallow the deductions from the time of the agreement forward. This will mean that the receiving spousal who has declared them as income may then be entitled to file an amended return to recover the taxes he or she paid. (Incidentally, the way this problem is often brought to the IRS's attention is where the recipient spouse doesn't declare the income, but you declare the deduction). There should be at least a six month differential between the timing of the termination of spousal support and a child's 18th birthday.

These issues can create a real shock, and totally undermine parties' expectations. Please have your settlement agreement reviewed by a competent attorney, and seek advice beyond the scope of this Blog in order to safeguard your interests!

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Thurman W. Arnold III