Filing income taxes after the break-up of a marriage can be a daunting task, especially if you haven't gotten a divorce or legal separation. You may be faced with having to file a separate tax return after years of filing joint returns with your spouse. This means choosing a new filing status, and since you're still legally married, your options are limited.
Filing taxes as single when married is not allowed. You can sometimes file as head of household when married if you're living separately from your spouse and supporting a dependent.
Choosing the Right Tax Status
Even though you may be estranged from your spouse, you are still considered married unless you obtained a divorce or a decree of separate maintenance from the courts by Dec. 31 of the tax year. You can still file a joint return if your spouse agrees to file with you, even though you no longer live together. This usually provides the greatest tax advantages overall. But if for any reason you choose to file a separate return, you are prohibited from claiming "single" as your filing status. The IRS could call being married and filing as single illegal tax fraud. Normally you must choose "married filing separately," although in certain cases you may qualify to file as "head of household."
Married filing separately has several disadvantages over other filing options. Generally you are subject to a higher tax rate, you cannot claim certain credits such as the earned income credit or education credits, and your ability to put money into an IRA or to claim other tax benefits may be restricted. Also, if your spouse itemizes deductions, you cannot take the standard deduction and must itemize as well, even if you have few deductions.
If you meet the Internal Revenue Service qualifications to be "considered unmarried," you might be able to file as head of household. To file under this status, you must have lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the tax year, paid more than half the expenses of keeping up a home, and have had a qualified child living with you most of the year. A qualifying child can be your child, a grandchild, a younger brother or sister, or a niece or nephew. You also must be able to claim the child as a dependent, unless your spouse is claiming the exemption as part of a written agreement.
The head of household filing status has many advantages, including a lower tax rate, a higher standard deduction, the ability to claim credits such as the earned income credit and education credits, and greater eligibility for other tax benefits. In addition, you can claim the standard deduction even if your spouse itemizes deductions.
If you believe that your spouse committed an error or lied on a tax form and it's costing you money, or you're otherwise owing tax because of the actions of your spouse, such as if you gave your spouse money to pay tax and they failed to do so, you can sometimes file for what the IRS calls innocent spouse relief.
Use IRS Form 8857 to do so.
2018 Tax Law Changes
Standard deductions and tax tables are changing for 2018. This may affect the benefit of filing as head of household rather than married filing separately.
2017 Tax Law
Tax rates are generally higher and the standard deduction lower for 2017 than subsequent years. This may affect your choice of filing status if you're eligible for more than one.
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.