Carol Ross Joynt: Swimming Through Quicksand

Carol Ross Joynt, author of "Innocent Spouse"

What would you do if, weeks after your spouse’s sudden death, you found out that he or she was keeping secrets that could cost you millions? wOw chats with the author of a dishy new memoir who faced just that

Your book, “Innocent Spouse,” tells the shattering story of your husband Howard Joynt’s untimely death at 58 — and his secret $3 million debt to the IRS, which you inherited as his widow. Both of you had high profile careers. What made you want to go public with this very private story?

I’ve been a storyteller all my professional life as a journalist, but always telling the stories of others. This was my story; I knew it was compelling, that it would resonate, and I was the best one to do the telling. It was therapeutic, too.

How were you able to process the loss of the husband you loved and the idea that you never really knew him — all while charged with raising and supporting your five-year-old son on your own?

I knew Howard better than anyone — but obviously not enough. I don’t know that you can ever know another person completely, even a mate of two decades. It took such a long time to learn to live without him, to go it alone, to accept that no one had my back, our backs, that my bed was empty, that his chair at the other end of the table was empty, that the person I talked to all the time, and relied upon, was gone. But there was no option except survival. I let grief happen as an organic process. When I had to cry, I cried. I didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me, to pity me — but I did ask for help when I needed it. I asked lots of questions and tried to learn what I needed to know to protect my son and myself and to move forward. More than anything I was scared and felt unqualified to master our lives the way I had to. But I had a child to raise, who I had to help get through his own grief, and that’s what guided me whenever I had a doubt. Any woman in a similar situation would do the same. You dust yourself off and get through it.

At any point did you suspect that Howard might be hiding something — or that you were living outside of your means?

We lived well. Bills got paid, we took vacations, home repairs happened swiftly, and we were generous to charities. But it never felt outrageous or over the top, especially given that his family had money and his business appeared wildly successful. Nothing made me suspicious. Howard liked quality, but he had a WASP ethic of not being ostentatious. So, no, nothing ever felt out of bounds.

There were times when Howard said we had to cut back and we did. Since we had separate bank accounts and credit cards I was not privy to his personal finances, nor was I involved in his business. I had my own career and income and used it for my personal expenses and some household bills.

I took too much for granted, especially our overall financial security. It was a house of cards. Only after he died did I learn his business couldn’t afford itself, and without the subsidy from his father, who’d died five years before, Howard couldn’t afford the business, either. So, he stopped paying taxes. The actual tax debt was close to $800,000, covering five years, which with penalties and interest grew to almost $3 million. Had he clued me in from the first time he saw trouble, I would have said, “We can do this. We’ll sell the house, whatever, but pay the taxes.”

Have you forgiven Howard? Or do you still feel angry, never having had the chance to confront him?

I try not to carry grudges or to remain angry. Like sea anchors, they stop forward motion. I needed to move on to survive. Howard was dead. What good was it to waste time and energy on anger toward a dead person? For the longest time I didn’t sense anger, and only toward the bitter end did I come to terms with how it nested deep inside me. I resented that he left me a bankrupt business and no road map, a manager who worked against me, landlords who didn’t want me and who were incapable of trusting a woman as a business owner, and this financial mess he’d got himself into that consumed me, my resources, my energy and the time and happiness I should have had to devote to raising our son. I was angry at myself, too, and shared the blame. When I finally at long last was able to close the business and regain my freedom, I cut loose that last sea anchor: my anger.

What is the “innocent spouse” status from which your book draws its name?

It is a code in the tax law that is designed to protect a husband or wife who can legitimately prove ignorance of a spouse’s tax fraud. Your defense has to show that you didn’t know and couldn’t have known.

In this country, there is an intense fear associated with the IRS. What was it like to be so sharply on their radar, and how do you feel about the IRS now?

When I first learned I was the defendant in a federal tax fraud case, I was petrified. I believed all the horror stories and was even paranoid that I might be sent to jail. I hired Sheldon Cohen and Miriam Fisher as my lawyers  and they calmed me, educated me and explained my rights; the law was on my side. They built a wall around my son and me and protected us. That’s why anybody in a tax fraud case should hire a lawyer, whatever his or her economic level. Don’t go up against the IRS alone – ever. That said, the IRS was fair to me. I didn’t do the crime, I proved it, and they agreed and absolved me of guilt.

How does your son, Spencer, feel about his father? As he was growing up, were you candid with him about Howard’s transgressions? How does he feel about this book?

I asked Spencer, who is now 19, to answer the question:

“Until maturity, I had the same perception of my father that any other boy has growing up. In many ways I idolized him, given the sugar-coated conception I was given of him as a debonair gentleman who could do no wrong. In my adolescence, I learned about his indiscretions, both legal and otherwise — but my conception of my father did not change much.

“Today, I am fully aware of the kind of man he was. I still wish that he could have been in my life growing up; I think he would have been a wonderful role model and would have helped me to develop many positive qualities, despite any problems he had. I miss and love my father to this day. As I go through school, and life in general, I try to embody his good qualities and remain aware of his flaws so as to avoid developing them.”

Having dramatically experienced the most severe consequences of handing over the financial reins to someone else, how have your money management habits changed?

I still add and subtract on my fingers, but they’re my fingers. Seriously, I’ll never be a mathematical whiz — but if I’ve achieved anything, it is self-sufficiency and a much clearer understanding of how the world works. Journalism didn’t teach me that. Real life taught me that. And I don’t take anything for granted. I still have a great capacity for love and trust and passion, but I’m all grown up.

Carol Ross Joynt is the author of the new memoir “Innocent Spouse.” She has spent three decades as a journalist, with stints at Time magazine, the CBS Evening News, This Week with David Brinkley, Nightline, Larry King Live, and Hardball with Chris Matthews. Upon her husband’s death, Joynt inherited his landmark Georgetown restaurant, Nathans, where she created The Q&A Cafe. She currently writes a weekly column about Washington for the website NewYorkSocialDiary.com

8 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Carol .   .   . as our read your unbelievably sad story, the quotation from Freidrich Nietzche was in the forefront of my mind:  THAT WHICH DOESN’T KILL US MAKES US STRONGER.  I fully realize that it does not blunt the pain, the resentments . . . and worse.  But – as you have found – many of us find that we have inner strengths that we never knew we had. 

    Why I do not know, but I found myself humming the Tony Bennett song The Good Life.  The lyrics that say in part “Like the heartaches, when you must face them alone . . . and so kiss the good life goodbye“.  And so you have.  For now.  For you have had to face one blow after another, wondering if it will never end, wondering if you are strong enough to face another day alone and dealing.

    Has it helped that what you have left are Washington friends who – I am sure – have gathered ’round, kept your head above water, had the “smarts” to be able to give you the best advice and counsel on all things financial and more.  The pain has to have been searing.  Writing a book no doubt has been a catharsis of sorts as I believe that not carrying that “load” but instead “getting it out” is a release of each own. 

    Have you turned the corner fully?  I enjoy reading you in the NYSD and more.  Your own life may have been fluttery but it has continued strong.  Questions you might have as to how you missed all the signals can easily be contributed to the fact of the totally separate arrangements you two had lived your lives. 

    It was a “Can you top this chapter in life?” and YES, you have not only learned from it but proven that life is not over by a long shot.   You may have “kissed the good life goodbye” – as Tony Bennett sings - but a new chapter is in its formative stages now.  Carol, you have proved you have strength beyond reason.  .  . and I will be interested in where “this next chapter” brings you.  I find I am more than hopeful!!!!

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      Sometimes what doesn’t kill you kills you anyway. You manage somehow to rise from the ashes. And start over.  Been there, done this. Twice now.  Not a husband but still people I trusted. And suddenly, the money is gone. All of it.  It’s usually your fault. You should have paid more attention. Been less trusting. That in itself curious.  Particularly if it’s someone you’re married to. You’re not supposed to trust the husband or wife? There’s this attitude towards victims in general. I think we simply scare people. We want to believe we have total control of our lives and our destiny so if something bad happens, well, we must have simply lost control of our lives. As I said, curious.  

      I think most women would rather discover the husband had a mistress on the side than to discover the husband left them in financial trouble. As Carol found out, in our liberated age of separate careers and separate bank accounts, the IRS sees only one party in the end. I had a friend years ago who discovered the former husband had not paid the taxes and who decided to assume the liablity. The other option was to let him go to prison. It took her five years of payments before she was able to save enough, and sell enough, on the side to seek a settlement. The IRS took into account that she was in fact an “innocent spouse” and allowed her to settle. She wasn’t angry so much as bewildered. Why did he not tell her they were in trouble? Even after they divorced he said nothing. And then suddenly, the letter from the IRS. He initially said it as an erorr. He would take care of it. She got an attorney to contact the IRS. And found it was no mistake.

      I remember reading about Nathan’s closing. And why. I am still stunned. Nathans? Why it was always packed. Then I remembered my friend and her husband. Who had a popular “watering hole” as well.  They, too, had a nice life.  That suddenly they couldn’t afford.  Perhaps it’s something about the male ego.  He didn’t want to let go of the life. So he stopped paying the taxes. Believing, perhaps, that at some point  he’d able to “catch up.”

      As I said, my friend wasn’t angry so much as bewildered. Like Carol, she would have let the life go. In the end, she had to anyway. They divorced because she couldn’t put up with his moods. Which looking back she realizes now were caused by his fear of the IRS and the growing debt.  So sad. 

      Money ain’t all. Sometimes we learn that lesson too late. But at least we learn it. My friend never felt the need to forgive her husband. When he was dying he asked her to.  “For what?” she asked. As I said, she wasn’t angry so much as bewildered. 

      I do think it is something about the male ego. My friend does as well. Her daughter found herself in the same boat so to speak. She managed to get to the mailbox one day before he did. And found the delinquency notice from the mortgage company. She sold a ring, got the mortgage caught up and the “For Sale” sign was put up the next day. When she realized it wasn’t going to sell for enough to cover the mortgage, she sold another ring and some art. And they bought another house and started living within their means. Finally. The other house never sold.  She told the mortgage company to just sell it themselves and notify her what remained.  She sold the rest of the jewelry to cover that.  And hasn’t looked back. And still trusts him. She just “peeks” at the bank accounts from time to time. Just to be sure.

      That’s really the lesson for all of us. Trust. But “peek” from time to time.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    On the one hand, it’s good to know that “the law is on your side” in a case like this… if you have a lawyer to guide you through it.

    On the other hand, tax fraud is a crime and no one should have to PROVE they are innocent; in this country, it is supposed to fall to the accuser to PROVE your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I understand the IRS has the documentation on the husband’s tax liabilities so they already have a “case,” but the spouse should not be presumed guilty as well.

    But the advice to get a lawyer and deal with it is spot on. When people ignore or try to evade problems with the IRS, they will find that the IRS has near-Orwellian powers to seize practically all of your real and personal property and finances.

  3. avatar crystalclear says:

    What a resilient woman you are!   Sharing this experience is valuable to us all.   I don’t know why some people hide financial issues from their spouses.   I’ve never understood that.   However, it does happen.   Dealing with the IRS can be overwhelming.   I’ve never had to do it but I know those who have gone up against the IRS without an attorney and it was ugly.   It’s like a swarm of buzzards surrounding a defenseless injured animal.   

    In the past, with a good attorney, the fees and penalties can be waived so that the actual tax owed can be paid back over an agreed upon schedule.   This situation of not knowing anything about the debt and the outcome in court is remarkable.  

    I believe everyone should pay their taxes on time and if they cannot for any reason they need to contact the IRS (through an attorney) with the truth and ask for a repayment schedule without interest and fees.  It can be done.   Often times, people take money out of their 401k’s and IRA’s before age 59 1/2 and they are hit with a 10% penalty.   The money removed is considered “income” which will throw you into a higher tax bracket and higher taxes plus the 10% penalty can be devastating to most people. 

    Interesting article.   I approve of the outcome 100%!   I love good endings!

  4. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    It is easy to sit back and second guess the past once it is over. Trust is part of a successful marriage so it isn’t surprising that people find that they never knew some aspects of their partners. In reality it isn’t unusual to find money issues in a marriage or partnership. Quite often it remains hidden because the person generating the problem is good at keeping it hidden.

    Over fifteen years ago my husband and I paid the back mortgage, interest and penalties for a sibling who said her house was about to be auctioned on the court house steps. She claimed at the time that her husband had financial problems and forgot to pay. We found out much later she handled those bills. We were not the only family members to bail her out. Others had in the past enabling her behavior to continue. It didn’t end until her husband took over the family finances.

  5. avatar Janet says:

    Baby once I thought I knew/
    Everything I needed to know about you/
    Your sweet whisper, your tender touch/
    I didn’t really know that much/
    The joke’s on me but it’s gonna be okay/
    If I can just get thru this lonesome day.

  6. avatar tcp1121 says:

    I can’t believe that I finally found someone else out there that has gone through a similiar situation!
      When I married my husband 28 years ago, I didn’t realize that he already wasn’t paying his payroll taxes for his business. During the next 10+ years he continued not to pay his business taxes as well. Yes, the 80″s were hard in Houston. I think that this did happen because of two reasons: My husband was just that kind of man that had to work for only himself, and, in construction work, you often work for the first draws, and do not focus on the fact that at the end of project, you’ve spent more than you made.  It is so easy to put those 1099s on the back burner.  Before you know it, your in over your head in bills and IRS taxes. Those taxes, of course, became judgements, liens and eventually pleas to do an “Offer and Compromise”.

     Where it got worse is when my husband found a lawyer that was going “help” us. Before the impending liens were handed down, the assets that my husband did own, were put in his father’s name.  My husband opened a new business, and started a trust.  The trust then bought the business, as well as the assets that were put in his father’s name.  My husband’s brother became the trustee, and my children were the beneficiaries. I was told as soon as we wwent through the “Offer and Compromise”, that we would we would put the assets back into our name. Its important to keep-in-mind that nothing that we had owned, and nothing that my husband would accrue in the future would be outside the trust. I was married for 25 years and nothing was in my name. The “Offer and Compromise” took 6 years.  The IRS saw what we made (which was really nothing), we had been liened and according to IRS rules we could only show that we made 1200/month. We lived through the business/trust. We technicially borrowed monies from the business.  I believe this loans were eventually written off as bad debts.
    We stayed on IRS probation for another 5-6 years. We could show only so much personal income during that time.  All the while, I was being led to believe that it would work out (for me). I have followed the dangling carrot for so long.

     In 2006 I filed for divorce. I had become increasingly hard to believe anything with each year. To this day, I so wish I could put the pieces together and have some answers. I am still so dumbfounded. How stupid I was? I know now, that when I saw my husband cheat the IRS, I should have realized nothing good could have come from it, and, that goes for me too. I thought my husband and this lawyer knew better, and that this was the only way to protect my family. Fear will make you do things that you shouldn’t. The truth probably is that, I just wasn’t strong enough to stand up, asked the right questions, and demand the appropriate answers. And, when all promises weren’t met,and the real answers became clear, I finally just had to make a choice. I don’t believe anymore, finally. I am not afraid anymore…well, not near as much anyways.

    In closing, I’d like to say, I have seen many (enough) lawyers, and not one has said the word “fraud”. So, your thoughts…When should I have known better?

    I had always wished that I could write a book/story. I have no writing/literacy talents. Innocent Spouse is a good title, mine would have been…It’ a matter of Trust.

  7. avatar wunderwoman says:

    There should be an “Innocent Ex-spouse” defense in other areas of law? Collection proceedings against me will start soon because my ex-husband’s business and his bonding company lost a lawsuit. I got no part of the ex’s business in our divorce, and had no knowledge of a lawsuit that went on for 10 yrs. We have been divorced for 12 yrs, I had remarried and moved to another state. As soon as the case was decided against the ex’s-business, the bonding company sued me for $300,000 and won because of an indemnity agreement I was required to sign 30 yrs ago while I was then married.
    In the midst of fighting the lawsuit, my wonderful new husband of 3 1/2 yrs died in Dec. and my ex is living his life in relative comfort. Where’s the justice?