Filing a Joint Tax Return When Married & Living Apart

Your marital status as of the last day of the year is a major factor in determining your filing status for your federal income tax return. If you were married as of Dec. 31, the Internal Revenue Service considers you to have been married for the whole year, and you can file a joint return with your spouse. Filing jointly usually provides a lower tax bill, but doing so can be challenging if you live apart from your spouse.

Joint vs. Separate

Married taxpayers have the option of filing a joint return or separate returns, regardless of whether you are currently living together or apart. In most cases you'll get a lower combined tax obligation by filing a joint return, but that's not always the case. Before deciding to file a joint return, consider figuring your taxes separately and jointly. You can then file your return using the filing status that gives you the greatest tax advantages.


When you file a joint return with your spouse, you get to combine your incomes and your deductions. You both have to sign the joint return, and living apart does not relieve either of you of this obligation. If you live apart, the IRS recommends giving yourself enough time to complete the return, sign it and send it to your spouse so he or she can sign it before the filing due date. Once you both sign the return, you are both responsible for paying any taxes that are due, jointly and severally. That means if your spouse doesn't pay the taxes, you are responsible for paying them.

Signing for Your Spouse

If you live apart from your spouse, in some situations you might be able to sign the joint return on his or her behalf. For example, you can sign a joint tax return for your spouse if you have a signed power of attorney granting you that right. If your spouse is in the military and is deployed in a combat zone, you can sign the return for your spouse even if you don't have a signed power of attorney. Also, you can sign for your absent spouse if injury or illness prevents him or her from signing the return. But in most other situations your spouse will have to personally sign the return.


If you and your spouse are living apart in anticipation of getting a divorce, but you have not received the final divorce decree as of the last day of the year, the IRS still considers you to be married for federal income tax purposes. You can file separate returns, but you still have the option of filing a joint return. You can file a joint return only if both spouses agree to it. If your spouse files a separate return, you must also file a separate return. If you both agree to file jointly, you must both sign the return. You will both be liable for any taxes due, even if your divorce decree places responsibility for taxes due on your former spouse.

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About the Author

Mike Parker is a full-time writer, publisher and independent businessman. His background includes a career as an investments broker with such NYSE member firms as Edward Jones & Company, AG Edwards & Sons and Dean Witter. He helped launch DiscoverCard as one of the company's first merchant sales reps.

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