For federal income tax purposes, there are five tax “statuses:” single; head of household; married filing jointly; married filing separately; and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child. Status affects tax credits and deductions, and therefore also affects the amount of taxes owed. This article focuses on married persons filing jointly or separately.
Married Status and Consequent Options
Consistent with federal law, for tax purposes, marriage is defined as a legal union between a man and a woman, as husband and wife. Taxpayers who are considered to be validly married have the option of choosing to file a tax return as:
Those considered married include:
Those who obtain an annulment are treated as if the marriage never happened, and will be considered unmarried even if they previously filed joint returns for earlier tax years. A taxpayer is deemed unmarried for “head of household” purposes if the spouse was a nonresident alien at any time during the year, under certain circumstances.
Joint Income Tax Returns
Married taxpayers have the option of filing a joint tax return, even when one spouse had no income or exemptions, but both spouses must agree to file a joint return. If filing jointly, the taxpayers must include all of their income, exemptions, deductions, and credits on the one return. At least one spouse must be a U.S. citizen or resident at the end of the tax year. Both spouses must sign the joint return, and both are liable, jointly and individually, for any tax and penalties arising from the return.
This joint liability may be a major drawback to filing a joint return. If one spouse fails to report income, the other spouse may be held responsible for resulting delinquent taxes, penalties, and interest. Tax law allows a spouse to avoid this liability, if relief is sought within two years and under certain circumstances, including:
Separate Income Tax Returns
Married taxpayers may also choose to file separately; each taxpayer will be responsible only for their own taxes and filing. If the spouses do not agree to file a joint return, they may have to file separately. Filing separately generally leads to higher taxes, because it affects tax rates, standard and itemized deductions, and tax credits. Tax returns for married taxpayers filing separately have special rules and restrictions, including:
The status listed on a return may be changed from separate to joint anytime within three years of the due date of the separate return. However, the status of a joint return cannot be changed to separate, except where there has been an annulment.
Head of Household Tax Return
A taxpayer may be able to file as head of household if: