Filing a Joint Tax Return When Married & Living Apart

It’s perfectly legal to be married filing jointly with separate residences, as long as your marital status conforms to the IRS definition of “married.” Many married couples live in separate homes because of life’s circumstances or their personal choices. Job locations, military service and higher education opportunities can drive a geographical wedge between married couples even when their marriage is perfectly intact. The last day of the year determines your tax filing status for the year. For example, regardless of whether you were single during all of 2018, if you were married on December 31, you'll file your 2019 tax return as married.

Married Living Apart and Taxes

You are considered legally married if the state where you live (or the state where you were married) recognizes your marriage. This includes common-law marriages and same-sex marriages. A same-sex couple is also deemed legally married if they were married in a U.S. territory or even a foreign country that legalized their union. If you’re separated from your spouse, but you’re not bound to a court-ordered maintenance agreement, you’re still considered legally married. Even if you’re separated and you have a preliminary or interlocutory decree of divorce – before the divorce is finalized – you’re still legally married.

If you’re married, you can choose between two filing statuses – married filing jointly or married filing separately. If you’re married filing separately and living apart, you won’t have to cover your spouse’s tax liability. But if you’re married filing jointly, even if you’re living apart, you still have a joint tax liability with your spouse. This means that both of you are responsible for paying the taxes that are owed. If your spouse defaults, you’ll still have to cover the debt.

The IRS grants relief from this constraint in some cases. A spouse who had no knowledge of the other spouse's incorrect reporting on a tax return can file IRS Form 8857 (Request for Innocent Spouse Relief). You can download this form at IRS.gov.

Married Filing Status Exceptions

If a court order annulled your marriage, you are considered as never having been legally married. A consequence is that you’ll have to file Form 1040-X (Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return) for each year that you filed a tax return as married.

If your spouse dies during the year, even as early as January 1, you are legally considered married for the rest of the year.

2018 Tax Law

Regardless of whether married couples live together or separately, the 2018 standard deduction is $24,000. In 2019, you’ll file your 2018 tax return on IRS forms 1040, 1040-EZ or 1040-A. You can visit IRS.gov to view or download these forms. Each form has a checklist to help you determine the best filing status for you and your spouse.

2017 Tax Law

The standard deduction for married couples filing jointly in 2017 was $12,700, which was substantially lower than the 2018 deduction. If you requested a filing extension in 2017, you’ll have to take this lower deduction even though you’re filing your tax return after the deadline in 2018. In other words, filing an extension to pay your taxes does not allow you to take the new, higher 2018 deduction.

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About the Author

Victoria Lee Blackstone was formerly with Freddie Mac’s mortgage acquisition department, where she funded multi-million-dollar loan pools for primary lending institutions, worked on a mortgage fraud task force and wrote the convertible ARM section of the company’s policies and procedures manual. Currently, Blackstone is a professional writer with expertise in the fields of mortgage, finance, budgeting and tax. She is the author of more than 2,000 published works for newspapers, magazines, online publications and individual clients.


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