Big debt on the prairie: Melissa Gilbert owes IRS $360K

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Howell — Actress Melissa Gilbert, the "Little House on the Prairie" star whose move to Howell two years ago brought a dash of Hollywood glamour to Livingston County, is more than a half pint short on her federal taxes.

The Internal Revenue Service recently accused her of failing to pay more than $360,000 in federal income taxes, a debt that is emerging one week after Gilbert announced she and her family are moving out of their rented home near downtown Howell.

Gilbert, 51, blamed the tax debt on a stalled acting career, the economy and divorce.

"Like so many people across the nation, the recession hit me hard," Gilbert said in a statement to The Detroit News. "That, plus a divorce and a dearth of acting opportunities the last few years, created a perfect storm of financial difficulty for me."

Gilbert, along with husband and fellow actor Timothy Busfield and two younger boys, are moving into a log house in an unspecified part of Livingston County, or as she wrote in a tweet last week "our own Little House in the Big Woods."

Her husband said the move from Howell is unrelated to the tax debt.

"(The debt) has more to do with the housing crash and divorce in the past," Busfield told The News. "It's a product of what happened with the economy. It's unfortunate and it's been happening a lot. It's not a big deal."

Gilbert said she has negotiated a payment plan with the IRS.

"I've set up an installment plan to fully pay off my debt and will continue to work as hard as I can to erase this debt and dig myself out of this hole," she said. "I am absolutely positive that I can do it."

Gilbert and East Lansing native Busfield — known for television roles in "thirtysomething" and "West Wing" and in the films "Revenge of the Nerds" and "Field of Dreams" — moved to Michigan about three months after they were married in April 2013.

Gilbert has a history of tax problems that followed her from California to Michigan. The state of California has filed $112,527 worth of tax liens against her since 2013.

A tax lien gives the government a legal claim to all of Gilbert's property, everything from vehicles to homes and income.

The IRS filed a $360,551 tax lien against Gilbert on Feb. 3. She owes federal income taxes from 2011, 2012 and 2013, according to the lien, which is filed with the Livingston County Register of Deeds.

According to the IRS, Gilbert owes $219,989 in income taxes from 2011. She owes $99,405 from 2012 — the year she appeared on "Dancing With the Stars" — and $41,157 in taxes from 2013, according to the tax lien.

Gilbert went through a period of change during the three years covered by the tax lien. She filed for divorce from Bruce Boxleitner in 2011 and competed on "Dancing With the Stars" the next year.

Since she and Busfield arrived in Michigan, they have rented a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot Victorian home built in 1890 and located two blocks from downtown Howell.

"Oh, my God, they're great," landlord and property owner Brenda Korth said. "It's been fine. It's been fun."

Korth rented the home to Gilbert, thinking the Hollywood couple would stay for one year.

"It turned into two years and that was fine but I'm really ready to move home," the General Motors environmental engineer told The News.

"If they've been having financial problems, that's not known to me," she added. "The rent's always been paid on time. They've been great tenants."

Gilbert and her husband are kind, she said, and have been welcomed by people in Howell.

"I'm so glad they're in town; everybody has been excited about it," Korth said.

Gilbert did not explain what prompted the pending move out of Howell.

"We are moving but we are not leaving," Gilbert tweeted Friday in response to a well-wisher. "We will be around. We love Howell. We love Livingston Co."

While in Michigan, Gilbert has written a cookbook called "My Prairie Cookbook," inspired by the voracious but picky eating habits of her sons. She has done at least one book signing in Livingston County.

The couple also has continued to pursue acting and directing careers. The couple guest starred on a late April episode of the NBC series "The Night Shift" that Busfield also directed.

In January, Gilbert participated in a charity fundraiser in Howell for Yatooma's Foundation For the Kids, a charity that raises money for children who have lost a parent.

"We're thrilled she's here," Bloomfield Hills lawyer Norman Yatooma said. "She's every bit the class act in person that her fans have come to love from the comfort of their couches."

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