NY: Crown Publishers, 2011. $25.
Suppose your spouse owned a business where he maintained two sets of books and paid employees under the table. Suppose he had gone heavily into debt to finance a luxurious lifestyle. Suppose the IRS had started to investigate him for tax fraud.
And suppose you knew none of this until the day he died unexpectedly…
Carol Ross Joynt recounts her gripping story in “Innocent Spouse,” a cautionary tale about marital dishonesty and financial betrayal.
When Howard Joynt appeared in her life, Carol was doing well on her own, first as a writer for CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, later as a producer for Larry King Live. But she quickly fell for the charismatic Howard, a man-about-town who owned Nathans, a popular restaurant in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. Despite ups and downs the marriage endured. Carol grew accustomed to a life that included a beach house, expensive cars, and a live-in nanny. She assumed that income from Howard’s family trust, plus Nathans, paid the bills. On the few occasions when Carol raised a question about money, Howard deftly deflected it.
In 1997, after 20 years of marriage, Howard’s sudden death from pneumonia left a bereaved Carol and their five-year-old son. Summoned to meet with Howard’s lawyers, Carol expected to come in and sign a few papers. Instead, they informed Carol that the IRS had built an airtight case against Howard for fraud. Carol stood to inherit a three million dollar tax bill unless she could claim relief under the Tax Code’s “innocent spouse” provision.
The book recounts Carol’s fight to obtain “innocent spouse” protection, as well as her 10-year effort to keep Nathans open. Since Howard had run the restaurant himself, Carol knew nothing about it, and soon found herself up against dishonest employees, inept managers, barroom fights, and declining revenues. Meanwhile, she was selling personal items, including furniture and clothing, to make ends meet. At night she would pore over financial records, trying to figure out how much was owed and to whom.
Carol and Howard are unusual because of their high profile and considerable assets. Their lack of communication about financial matters, however, is an issue that arises in many marriages. It can take various forms. For example, one spouse may be quite happy to let the other assume responsibility for the family finances. The spouse in charge may make little effort to share financial information. Or, they try to interest their spouse in the topic but eventually give up when there is little response.
Carol admits that, in retrospect, she should have pressed Howard for answers to her financial questions and not given up so easily when he brushed her off. She wanted to believe the best about their financial situation, and it nearly cost her everything she owned. Carol’s story, told with brutal honesty, reminds couples that financial secrecy can exact a high toll and has no place in a healthy marriage.