How to File Taxes When Newly Widowed

The federal tax law allows new widows and widowers to file a joint return in the year of their spouse's death. For the two years following the year of death, the Internal Revenue Service also allows some newly widowed taxpayers to continue taking advantage of the tax benefits of a joint tax return with the "qualifying widow(er) with dependent child" filing status.

Year of Death

For the tax year during which your spouse died, the IRS allows you to file a joint tax return -- provided you were eligible to do so when your spouse was alive. It doesn’t matter whether you ever filed a joint return in the past – all that’s important is that you had the option to do so.

Next Two Tax Years

Newly widowed taxpayers who are eligible to file a joint return with their deceased spouse can sometimes continue taking advantage of the lower rates of tax and higher standard deduction that joint filers receive. This benefit is available for the two years following the year of your spouse’s death by using the “qualifying widow(er) with dependent child” filing status. To qualify, the dependent must be your natural child, adopted child or stepchild. Moreover, the child must live with you for the entire tax year in a home that you’re responsible for paying more than half the cost to maintain. If you remarry within these two years, you’re no longer eligible for the qualifying widow(er) status.

First Year’s Return

On this initial return, you can choose the married filing jointly filing status rather than one of the filing statuses available to unmarried taxpayers. If filing jointly, however, you need to include all income that your deceased spouse earned and combine it with yours. The last step before finalizing your return is to calculate the income tax you owe using the married filing jointly tax brackets or tables.

Qualifying Widow(er) Returns

If eligible, you can choose the qualifying widow(er) filing status on your next two tax returns. In these years, you must file on either the 1040 or 1040A, since the 1040EZ is not an option for taxpayers who claim dependents. The amount of your standard deduction will continue to be the amount available to joint filers, and you will calculate your tax using the married filing jointly tax tables.