, Derry, New Hampshire

September 1, 2011

The IRS has a long reach for back taxes

About the Law
Andrew Myers

How many years back can the IRS go in claiming you owe taxes from previous years? Also, do they still only ask you to keep your tax records and supporting documents for seven years?

If no tax return was filed, the IRS can go back for the entire period of delinquency, although they generally, as a matter of policy, stop at six years.

If you did file a return, then IRS has three years from the date the return was filed to do an audit. But, like a lot of things involving taxes, the answer is not quite that simple.

While the IRS generally can include returns filed within the last three years in an audit, if they find a "substantial error," then additional years can be added, up to six years usually.

Substantial error is defined as 25 percent of gross income. If you owe taxes on a return that was filed, but the taxes were not paid, IRS has 10 years from the date of assessment, or filing if no assessment, to collect before the statute of limitations expires.

Yes, it is generally recommended that supporting records be kept for seven years and the actual returns indefinitely. However, again, there's rarely a simple answer and the actual IRS guidelines are spelled out in IRS Publication 552, which is available online.

Please do not take this as tax advice. This is a general interest column. For specific concerns behind your query, consult with a tax advisor.

My divorce is supposedly final, but I was never served court papers. He and I have always lived together and we still do. How could the divorce be final if I never had papers served on me?

There are a couple of ways to address this mystery. Without knowing more here on this end, I'd suggest that you go to the clerk of court's office and ask to look at the file.

If, in fact, a case was pursued to the end and if, in fact, a judgment entered without proper service of process, then, lacking service, the court had no jurisdiction and lack of jurisdiction is one of the few defenses available at any time, even after the case is over.

But, there's another possibility. You may have signed an acceptance of service. This waives the need to have a sheriff or other process server actually serve papers.

Depending on the papers that you may have signed you might have signed a waiver of attendance at the final hearing. However, these possibilities are speculation on my part.

Examination of the actual court file is the only way to discover the true status of your case. You might make copies of the file and take them to an attorney who will know the local rules of court procedure and the applicable statutes.

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Andrew Myers of Derry has law offices in Derry and North Andover. He is a member of the American Association for Justice and the New Hampshire Trial Lawyers Association. Send questions to