Married couples who live apart by choice or by circumstance can file their taxes jointly or separately. In limited circumstances, they may be able to file their taxes as head of household tax filers. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses Dec. 31 of the tax year to establish a taxpayer's filing status. Thus, a taxpayer who is legally married on Dec. 31 can file her taxes jointly, separately or as a head of household tax filer.
Generally, taxpayers who file using the head of household filing status receive greater tax benefits than single taxpayers or married taxpayers who file separately. As long as both spouses agree to file their taxes jointly, and they are still legally married on Dec. 31, the IRS allows them to file their taxes as married taxpayers filing jointly. The IRS considers the spouses as legally married if they have not received a final decree of divorce. The IRS defers to a state's definition of "legally married," and spouses who were married at common law pursuant to their state's marriage laws can file their taxes as married taxpayers. However, only opposite-gender spouses can file their taxes as married taxpayers, even when their states recognize civil unions and same-sex domestic partnerships.
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Married Filing Jointly
Married taxpayers can file their taxes jointly even if they live separately on Dec. 31, as long as they are not legally divorced on that date and both agree to file their taxes as married taxpayers filing jointly. Married taxpayers receive a larger standard deduction than single taxpayers or married taxpayers filing separately. Married taxpayers who file their taxes jointly must both sign their tax returns.
Consequences of Filing Jointly
Under the federal Internal Revenue Code, married taxpayers are jointly and separately responsible for paying their income tax liabilities. Thus, a taxpayer who did not earn income is jointly responsible for paying income taxes. Furthermore, taxpayers are jointly responsible for filing errors or for penalties for fraudulently filing their tax returns. However, the IRS allows innocent spouses to file for equitable relief of their joint liabilities if they are legally separated, divorced or married and could not have known of the tax errors or fraudulent reporting. To receive relief, a taxpayer must file an innocent spouse relief request.
Married Filing Separately
Taxpayers who are married on Dec. 31 can file their taxes separately even when they obtain a final divorce decree before the April 15 tax deadline. If one spouse does not agree to file taxes jointly, they must file their taxes separately. Married taxpayers who file individual returns generally receive a smaller standard deduction than they would if they had filed joint tax returns. Furthermore, some tax credits and deductions, such as the dependent care deduction or earned income tax credit, are unavailable to married taxpayers who file separate tax returns.
Head of Household
Taxpayers who are legally separated and have lived apart for at least six months, or taxpayers who are divorced or widowed, can file their taxes using the single head of household filing status. Generally, head of household filers receive a larger standard deduction than married taxpayers who file separate returns, and they do not have to itemize their tax returns. They can also take advantage of tax credits and deductions that may be unavailable to married taxpayers filing separate tax returns. Head of household taxpayers must be financially responsible for maintaining their homes and caring for a qualifying child.