There are a variety of financial and tax implications associated with marriage. When the time comes to file tax returns, married couples typically have the option of filing either separate or joint returns.
There is no federal rule that says you can't file jointly if you're married but living in different states
When You Can File Jointly
You only have two requirements for filing a joint return. The first requirement is that both you and your spouse agree on the intent to file as a couple; if you don't, you have to file separately. The other requirement is that you and your spouse match the definitions of marriage provided by the Internal Revenue Service. If you and your spouse meet both of these requirements, you can file a joint return when living apart, as long as you're not legally separated. There's no restriction on being married and filing jointly with different state residences.
As long as you and your spouse are married on the last day of the year, the IRS counts you as married for all 12 months. If, say, your divorce becomes final December 31, you file as single for the entire year. The same applies if you get an annulment or a legal separation. If the IRS considers you married, however, you and your spouse have the freedom to file joint or separate returns, whichever gives you the better tax deal.
If, for example, you and your spouse claim New Jersey as your home state but you work in North Carolina throughout the year, you can still file a joint New Jersey return. You pay North Carolina income tax on your earnings there, and get a credit for that tax bill back in New Jersey. If your spouse is a New Jersey resident and your legal home is North Carolina, New Jersey will still let you file a joint return. Your own states' websites should be able to tell you the rules for your state. States have forms for nonresident taxpayers to use, such as California's form 540NR.
If you can file jointly, that usually works out for the best. Joint status gives you better tax rates and more credits and deductions than if you're married and filing a separate return. If one of you lives in a low-tax state – Florida, for example, has zero income tax – that may not be the case. You might be better off filing a separate return in your state, while she files in Florida and pays no state tax on her income.
If your spouse dies during the year, you can still file a joint return, unless you remarry before the year is over. In that case, you file a joint return with your new spouse and your deceased spouse's estate files a separate one. In the event of remarriage, the same rules regarding qualifications and requirements listed above also apply.
- IRS: Publication 501 (2018), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- IRS: Publication 555 (01/2019), Community Property
- Business Insider: You Could Save Tons of Money on Your Taxes by Choosing to File Jointly or Separately With Your Spouse
- California Francise Tax Board: 540NR: California Nonresident or Part-Year Resident Income Tax Return
- Legal Beagle: How to File Taxes With a Marriage in Different States
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.