Filing a joint tax return usually offers several tax advantages over filing as single or married filing separately. Even if you and your spouse lived apart the entire year for any reason, you can still file a joint return if you were legally married on the last day of the tax year and meet the other requirements.
Spouse Must Agree
Both spouses must agree to file a joint return. If one spouse refuses to file jointly, you must file separate returns even if you are the only one with income. Generally, both spouses must sign the return unless one has given the other power of attorney or guardianship, or you are filing electronically and the other spouse gives you permission. If your spouse does not agree to file jointly, you must file as married filing separately, or as head of household if you qualify.
Head of Household
One bonus to being unmarried is that you may be able to claim head of household status. In order to file this way, you must be unmarried on the last day of the tax year, as well as having a qualifying person living with you for at least six months out of the year. Qualifying people include children, significant others and children of significant others. As head of household, you'll qualify for a higher standard deduction than if you'd filed as single or married filing separately. Your tax rate will also be lower.
If you are undergoing divorce proceedings but there has been no court decree of separate maintenance, and the divorce is not finalized by the end of the tax year, you are considered married for that year. However, if there is a decree of separate maintenance, you cannot file a joint return. A decree of separate maintenance generally dictates each spouse's financial responsibilities to the other and divides up financial obligations and the possession of property.
If you were married by common law and you no longer live together, your marital status for federal tax purposes depends on the laws of the state in which your common-law marriage was established, regardless of where you now live. Common-law marriages are recognized only in a handful of states, but if you live in one of those states, you may want to put in writing that you do not wish to have your relationship seen that way. Otherwise, you could find it leads to problems later.
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