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Married Jointly or Married Separately? All About Filing Status

Your requirement to file a tax return depends on three things: your age, income and filing status. Confused about the third one? Here’s everything you need to know about filing status.

Photo: Thinkstock / The Nest

Forget itemizing deductions: You’re still stuck on which tax filing status to choose! Let’s clear the air by taking a look at your options.

Single

Your filing status is single if, on the last day of the year, both of these apply:

  • You're unmarried or legally separated from your spouse under a divorce or separate maintenance decree (the court order must be permanent)
  • You don't qualify to file as head of household or qualifying widow(er)

You might also be single if you were widowed before January 1 of the current year and haven’t remarried. In some cases, a single person might be able to lower their tax if they qualify to file as head of household or qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child. Of these three filing statusesm when you file single you will pay the most taxes.

Married Filing Jointly

As a married couple, you can choose to file a joint return or separate returns. You're considered married if, on the last day of the year, all of these apply:

  • You're legally married
  • You're not legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree
  • You're not considered unmarried for tax purposes, meaning your spouse lived with you at all times during the last six months of the year

If your spouse passes away during the year, both you and your spouse are considered married for that tax year. If you don't remarry during the year, you can file a joint return or separate returns. If you do remarry in the same year your former spouse died, you must do both of these:

  • File a joint return or separate returns with your new spouse
  • File a married filing separately return for your deceased spouse

Married Filing Separately

As we said above, a married couple can choose to file a joint return or separate returns. Many couples choose to file a joint return, as it often results in a lower federal tax. If you file separate returns, the tax rates are usually higher.

Plus, several deductions and credits you might receive if you file a joint return are reduced, limited or not allowed.

Qualifying Widow(er)

You can file as qualifying widow(er) if all of these apply:

  • You qualified to file a joint return for the year your spouse passed away. It doesn't matter whether you actually filed a joint return that year.
  • Your spouse died in either of the two tax years immediately before the current tax year and you haven't remarried
  • You claim one of these relatives as an exemption on your return: child, stepchild or adopted child (does not include a foster child)
  • You paid more than half the cost of maintaining your home for the year. This must have been the home of your qualifying child or stepchild for the entire year as well.

Head of Household

You can file as head of household if all of these apply:

  • You were unmarried or considered unmarried for tax purposes on the last day of the tax year
  • You paid more than half the cost of maintaining your home for the year
  • A qualifying person lived with you in the home for more than half the year, except for temporary absences. However, if the qualifying person is your dependent parent, they don’t have to live with you.

Married but Considered Unmarried for Tax Purposes

To be considered unmarried for tax purposes, all of these must apply:

  • You file a separate return from your spouse
  • You paid more than half the cost of maintaining your home for the entire year
  • Your home was the main home for more than half the year for one of these people: child, stepchild or eligible foster child
  • You can claim an exemption for the child. This test doesn't apply if you can't claim the exemption only because the noncustodial parent is claiming the child.
  • Your spouse didn't live in the home during the last six months of the year. The spouse is considered to live in your home if the spouse was only absent because of special circumstances, such as illness, business or military.

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