How to File Taxes During Marriage Separation

A marital separation can impact a taxpayer's return, depending on the circumstances.

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Going through a divorce or a separation can be draining and emotional. Because so much energy has to be expended in other areas, the parties involved might overlook important issues such as how to file a tax return. Filing taxes during a separation hinges on whether the Internal Revenue Service considers the taxpayer married or unmarried under the relevant tax regulations.

Determine Whether You Are Married or Unmarried

Whether you are married or not has an effect on how you can file taxes and what types of exemptions, credits and deductions you’re entitled to. If you are in the midst of a separation, the IRS still may consider you “married” for tax purposes. A legal separation is very much the same as a divorce in that you must petition the court to decree a legal separation; individuals can choose a legal separation as opposed to a divorce for personal reasons and religious reasons. You will be able to prove that you are legally separated to the IRS by showing the agency your separation decrees, signed by the judge or magistrate. Under the tax code, until a final decree of separation is ordered by the court, you may still be considered married. If a final decree of separation is not entered before the final day of the tax year, the IRS will consider you married and you must file as a married taxpayer.

Choose a Filing Status

Taxpayers who are separated, but considered married for tax purposes, can file as married filing jointly or married filing separately. Often, married filing jointly is better because both taxpayers can take advantage of the same credits. If the separation is contentious, however, this might not be ideal because you must work together on the tax return and cosign it. Filing as “head of household” is another option. Head of household filers typically enjoy a standard deduction that is higher than that available to married filing separately or even individual taxpayers. For taxpayers who are considered unmarried, your option is limited to filing an individual tax return.

Claim Your Deductions and Credits

The deductions, exemptions and credits available to you also depend on your filing status. Married filing jointly taxpayers enjoy different deductions and credits than those who are married filing separately or who file individual returns. Also, certain features of the separation can affect your tax liability. If you received a decree of separation from the family court before the end of the tax year, and you received some form of alimony or spousal support from your ex, that money may be taxable income. Additionally, if you have children, you can both claim your children as dependents if you file as married filing jointly. But if you file separately from your ex, you cannot both claim the same child as a dependent.

Consult a Tax Expert

Separated taxpayers should consider speaking to a tax expert prior to filing their returns. Issues such as whether the taxpayer is actually a married taxpayer or an unmarried taxpayer, or whether the taxpayer can claim a child as a dependent, all have a significant impact on how the taxpayer files. Filing a return with mistakes can expose the taxpayer to serious problems with the IRS.

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About the Author

Based in Traverse City, Mich., George Lawrence has been writing professionally since 2009. His work primarily appears on various websites. An avid outdoorsman, Lawrence holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in both criminal justice and English from Michigan State University, as well as a Juris Doctor from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he graduated with honors.

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