Can I Force My Separated Husband to File Income Tax as Married Filing Jointly?
It's impossible to file a joint married tax return without your husband's cooperation because the return requires both your signatures. You'd also need access to all his income information, which could prove difficult if you're no longer living together. Legally, both spouses must agree to use this filing status, so if you can't talk your husband into it, you must explore other options.
If you're separated, this presents a bit of a gray area as to whether the Internal Revenue Service will allow you to file a joint return. If your divorce is final by the end of the tax year, you can't use this filing option. For example, if you were separated all year, and if your divorce was final on December 31, the date of your divorce prevails. You can't file a joint return even if you were still legally married through almost the entire year. Other factors can also affect whether you can file a joint return. If you're legally separated by court order, you typically can't do so, but if you're separated under the terms of an interlocutory order, you can. An interlocutory order is one which specifically states that your divorce won't become final until some point in the future. If you're informally separated, there's no obstacle to filing a joint married return just because you and your husband live in separate households.
Separate Return Limitations
In most situations, filing a joint married return saves you tax dollars, so it's preferable if you can qualify. Tax law bars you from claiming certain tax credits if you file a separate married return. You and your husband must also match your standard deductions if you file separately. If he itemizes on his return, you have no choice but to do so as well, and this might not be to your advantage.
Amending Your Status
If you file a separate return and your husband then changes his mind, you have up to three years after the tax due date to file an amended joint return and change your filing status. The IRS isn't as generous the other way around – but this could be to your advantage if you want to file jointly. If you can convince your husband to file jointly, he can only amend the joint return to a separate return until that year's tax due date, typically April 15.
If your husband refuses to file jointly with you, you might have another option, depending on your personal situation. If you and your husband lived separately the last six months of the year, if you have a dependent who lived with you at least six months of the year, and if you paid more than half the costs of your own household, you might qualify as head of household. This will restore some of the tax perks you'd lose by filing a separate married return, but the rules to qualify are complicated. If you think you can claim this filing status, speak with a tax professional to be sure.
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She specializes in personal finance and w, bankruptcy, and she writes as the tax expert for The Balance.