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