It is pretty common practice for one spouse to sign for the other. It may not be ‘correct’, but it is pretty well accepted and rarely ever an issue. But what happens if it is an issue, if one spouse is not okay with their name being forged, even by their spouse?
This becomes a problem if there are taxes owed on the return from your spouse, and the IRS starts coming after you for it. That can be a big surprise if you were in the dark to the filing.
Whether you are ultimately responsible for the taxes depends on the facts and circumstances of your filing history with your spouse. The goal in such cases is to convince the IRS to adjust the return filing status from joint to separate and remove you from a return you did not agree to.
The IRS examination of your claim will focus on whether you authorized your spouse to sign your name on the return. Authorization, however, does not have to be direct, i.e., “Yes, you have my permission to sign my name.” Instead it can be implied by our actions and whether you tacitly consented to the signing of your name and the filing. This is known as “tacit consent”.
Tacit consent can bind you to a joint return as if you had signed it yourself if you have a history of filing jointly with your spouse and you did not file separate returns on your own. Your signature is authorized by implication—tacit consent.
Ashworth v. Commissioner, TC Memo 1990-423, is a perfect example. Pamela Ashworth filed joint returns with her husband for six years. In the seventh year they filed jointly but unlike the prior years they were audited and the IRS found a balance due. Mrs. Ashworth then claimed she never signed the return, that the signature was done by her husband and not authorized by her.
The Tax Court found that that Pamela’s ongoing consent to the filing of joint returns for the six prior years and her failure to file any separate returns created a pattern of consent to the joint filing in the seventh year. In other words, it is not a forgery if tacit consent is found.
Bottom line: The determination of a joint filing depends on the intentions of the parties, not the presence or absence of their signatures.
Generally, in these cases the IRS presumes the intent of the married parties is to file jointly when that is what has always been done. For the best success in avoiding being bound to a tax return you did not in fact sign with your spouse, be sure to file your own separate return timely and consult a tax professional as early as possible if your spouse is signing your name against your wishes.