Can You File a Joint Return if You Are Married & Don't Live Together?

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

If you and your spouse lived entirely apart during the last six month of the tax year, you may be able to file as head of household. This filing status gives you a higher standard deduction and a lower tax rate than if you were to claim married filing separately as your status. To qualify as head of household, you need to pay more than half the bills of your household and have a qualifying relative. Generally to be a qualifying relative, someone must be either: your unmarried child living with you most of the year; a close relative living with you most of the year who you claim as a dependent; or your parent who you claim as a dependent and you pay most of the upkeep costs of their main home.

Legally Separated

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.

Common-Law Marriage

If you were married by common law and you no longer live together, your marriage 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. In some states a common-law marriage can end only with a divorce decree. In other states, such as Texas and Utah, the marriage is automatically annulled after the couple stops living together for a certain amount of time unless they register the marriage in court.

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About the Author

Alan Sembera began writing for local newspapers in Texas and Louisiana. His professional career includes stints as a computer tech, information editor and income tax preparer. Sembera now writes full time about business and technology. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Texas A&M University.

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