Tax guide

Marriage and Divorce

Introduction

Getting married or divorced is a major life event, and can raise questions when it’s time to do your taxes. Do I have to change my last name? How do I file now? When does my marriage or divorce count?

It’s fairly simple, once you know the IRS rules.

Marriage

To begin with, if you get married any time within the year, the IRS considers you married for the entire year (provided of course that you’re not already divorced by the end of the year). That means you can file a married return.

There are two married filing statuses:

  • Married filing jointly simply means that you and your spouse combine your incomes and file one tax return. Depending on your combined income, filing jointly may place you in a higher tax bracket, but it’s usually the most beneficial, tax-wise.
  • Married filing separately means you and spouse file separate returns, counting only your separate incomes and splitting your credits and deductions in whatever way you like. Filing separately can sometimes be beneficial, such as when there’s a big difference in the two spouses’ incomes. In such cases, the lower tax for one spouse can more than make up for the slightly higher tax for the other.

Important: If you’re filing jointly in a community property state, both spouses are responsible for any taxes, penalties or other monies due. This also applies when married filing separately: Both spouses are responsible, even if one spouse earned all the income. Even if a divorce decree states that your spouse is responsible for any monies owed, you may still be liable for the amount as well.

Divorce

If you get a divorce or become legally separated, you can file as single for the year. If you have any qualifying dependents, you can file as head of household, which is desirable, as it lowers your taxes more than the single filing status.

It’s a common belief that if you’re running a household of one – yourself – you can file as head of household. Nice try, but not so: you have to have at least one dependent. (If your parent is your dependent, see Claiming a Parent as a Dependent.)

If you pay alimony to a former spouse, you can deduct the amount you paid for the year. See Alimony and Child Support.

Changing Your Name

If you changed your name when you got married or divorced, you should notify the Social Security Administration (SSA) of the change before you file your taxes. The IRS matches your return to records it gets from the SSA, and if they don’t match, it will reject your return. Alternatively, you can just file your return with your old name.

Also see:
Claiming a Child When You’re Divorced or Separated
Claiming Dependents for Head of Household and EIC

 

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