Can an Unmarried Couple File Jointly for Income Tax?

by Alia Nikolakopulos

    You get some benefits when you file a joint tax return, including lower tax rates and some increases in deduction limits. Unmarried couples are allowed to file joint returns in some instances, dependent on state statutes. The Internal Revenue Service recognizes most unions allowed under state law, with the exception of Registered Domestic Partnerships. If you meet certain criteria, you and your partner may file jointly, but consider some legal issues before you do so.

    Common Law

    In most cases, the IRS requires couples to be legally married to file a joint tax return. However, the IRS also allows couples who aren’t legally married but are considered married by common law to also file jointly. As of publication, only eight U.S. states, plus the District of Columbia, recognize common law marriages. These include Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Texas and Montana. Five other states recognize common-law unions, but only if the marriage was entered into before a certain date. These include Georgia, Pennsylvania, Idaho, Ohio and Oklahoma. If your common-law union begins in a state that does recognize it and you later move to a state that does not, the state you move to typically must continue to recognize your marriage as valid.

    Examples of Married Behavior

    If your union is recognized under common law, you must behave as a married couple. Each state has different requirements to meet before your marriage can be valid under common law. Some states require you and your partner to live together for a certain amount of time and act as husband and wife during that time. Other states do not place time limits on cohabitation rules. Examples of married behavior may include calling each other husband and wife, signing legal documents together, sharing phone plans and insurance policies and generally behaving in manner that suggests to others outside your relationship that you are in fact married.

    Joint Filing Considerations

    Once you file a joint return with your partner, the Internal Revenue Service does not allow either party to change the filing status for that year – it remains Married Filing Jointly. All subsequent returns filed by the couple must be made under a married status, either Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately. To file as single or head of household in the future, the couple must formally dissolve their union in court. Before an unmarried couple decides to file a joint return, consideration must be made to this potential future consequence.

    Registered Domestic Partnerships

    Some states recognize Registered Domestic Partnerships as a legal union and grant these couples the option of filing a joint income tax return. However, this option applies only to state tax returns. As of publication, the IRS doesn’t formally recognize RDP marriages. RDP couples must still file as single for federal income tax purposes, regardless of state laws. Because joint RDP state returns are relatively new and require special attention to federal filing, consult with a tax professional prior to submitting your returns to clarify the issue.

    About the Author

    With a background in taxation, Alia Nikolakopulos specializes in business and personal finance topics. She is an IRS enrolled agent pursuing a Bachelor of Science in accounting and journalism at the Metropolitan State University of Denver.

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