By Katherine Reynolds Lewis
c.2007 Newhouse News Service
Illustration by Monica Seaberry
Now that you've filed your taxes, take a hard look at your return. The innocent-looking pages of numbers could reveal a nasty surprise: a cheating spouse.
Why would a dishonest mate be truthful with the Internal Revenue Service?
"Your spouse may forgive you, but the IRS never will,'' said Helen O'Planick, a tax professional in Manchester, Pa. "They have a little longer arm and there are so many paper trails.''
Any surprising or confusing item on your tax return could be a clue to an extramarital liaison, said Peter Psarouthakis, a Chelsea, Mich., private investigator and president of the Michigan Council of Private Investigators.
"Look at the return and see what's on there that you don't know anything about,'' Psarouthakis said. " 'Follow the money' is the classic line, and it's no different whether you're doing an infidelity investigation or corporate fraud.''
One red flag is when your spouse pressures you to sign the return without reading it, said Rebecca Preston, a fee-only financial planner in Providence, R.I.
A client of Preston's signed her joint tax return without a glance because her husband said it had to be mailed right away. Months later, she saw a retirement plan statement and discovered he'd been draining the account.
If the woman had looked at the return, she would have seen the distributions and penalties for early withdrawal, Preston said. Now, she's divorced and slowly rebuilding her own financial house.
"Not only was he an untrustworthy skunk, he was spending down what was supposed to be their retirement,'' Preston said.
First, consider whether the amount of income is what you'd expect, reported on line 7 of Form 1040.
One common cover for an affair is pretending to work overtime, said Ruth Houston, New York-based author of "Is He Cheating on You? 829 Telltale Signs.'' So check whether your spouse's W2 form reflects the level of overtime he claimed. Higher-than-expected wages might also indicate that your partner is hiding money in anticipation of a divorce.
On the other hand, a smaller income than you'd expect, given what you've assumed were your spouse's profligate spending habits, may tip you off to lavish presents from a lover.
"There is a definite link between marital infidelity and financial infidelity,'' Houston said. "It could be as serious as having money stashed in a secret bank account that your spouse doesn't know anything about, or maybe property or business investments.''
Next, check the bank and investment accounts. Are there new ones? Are any from previous years missing? Affairs are expensive, and people sometimes close accounts to pay for dinners, trips and gifts.
Sheri, a central New York resident who didn't want her last name published, didn't know that her unfaithful husband had cashed in stock options. They were in the midst of divorce proceedings, and he was resisting filing a joint return. It was just by chance that Sheri opened the mail to find a form documenting the liquidation.
Indeed, a spouse who insists on filing separately may be hiding something. "Generally it's more beneficial to be married filing jointly,'' said David Bergstein, a certified public accountant at CCH CompleteTax, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Finally, compare mortgage interest deducted to the figure from the previous year. If you have a fixed-rate loan, the amounts should be similar. A sudden increase could mean your spouse bought a love nest or borrowed from your home equity to finance an affair, said Doug Taylor, a financial planner in Torrance, Calif.
"If you suspect something, just say, 'Let me help this month and I'll pay all the bills,' '' Taylor said. "If you get a very defensive answer, that may raise your radar.''
While the tax return won't give you a complete picture of a spouse's infidelity, it can be the first clue that leads to more evidence. Records of cell phone, credit card and Internet use can offer firmer proof.
"We see a lot of stuff come out in the wash during tax season, either identity theft or infidelity,'' said Emily Davidson, communications director for San Francisco-based www.Credit.com. "It's a good policy in your relationship to be very open about your finances. Any time you start having a lot of secrecy — that's a time to take a serious look at what's going on in other parts of your relationship.''
(Katherine Reynolds Lewis can be contacted at katherine.lewis(at)newhouse.com)
This story was originally published Thursday, May 3, 2007.