When you file your annual tax return, you must indicate your filing status to the Internal Revenue Service. Tax rates vary with marital status; those who file as single generally pay a higher rate of income tax than those who file a joint return as a married couple. The IRS has strict guidelines on who may claim married status.
Filing Status Date
Your marital status on the last day of the tax year determines your filing status. If you were single Dec. 30 but were legally married Dec. 31, your status for the entire year would be married. Married couples have the option to file separate or joint returns, but a single person can't file a joint return with another single person.
Divorced or Separated
Anyone who is legally divorced on the last day of the tax year must file as a single person. This also applies to anyone who is legally separated by the laws of the state where they live, though not all states offer legal separation. Simply living apart does not signify legally separated; this status must be the result of a civil court action. The IRS doesn't recognize an interlocutory separation, meaning a temporary order of separation in a pending divorce action.
Death of Spouse
If your spouse died during the year, the IRS will still allow you to file a return as a married person, filing jointly with the deceased. You would also have the option to file as a single person, or -- if you have a dependent -- as a qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.
Common-Law and Same-Sex Marriages
Some states recognize common-law marriages, meaning a man and woman have lived together long enough to enjoy the legal benefits of married status. For residents of those states, the IRS allows common-law couples to file as married with a joint return. Same-sex couples may not file joint returns in any state, as the federal tax code does not recognize the legality of same-sex marriages.
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