Your wife files a separate tax return as head of household, leaving you wondering what you can do. If you are estranged you really don't have any options except to file you own separate return. But if you're still living together and she filed as head of household, you may want to start worrying.
If your wife lived apart from you for the entire last six months of the year, she may qualify to file as head of household, as long as she paid most of the costs of keeping up a household and had a dependent child or other qualifying relative living with her for most of the year. This filing status could mean a big refund for her if she has the children and she qualified for the earned income credit and the additional child tax credit.
Still Living Together
If she claimed head of household but she is still married to you and living with you, she could be in trouble. If the Internal Revenue Service ever questions her return, she could have to repay any refund along with interest and penalties. Technically you don't bear any legal responsibility since you didn't sign her tax return, but as long as you stay married and share responsibility for any kids you will probably both end up paying in the long run.
If your wife claimed head of household in error, she can still fix things by filing an amended joint return with you using Form 1040X. You have three years from the original due date of the separate returns to change to a joint return. Even if her filing status is legitimate, you may want to talk her into filing an amended joint return with you if it will keep you from owing a lot of taxes. You may have to compensate her for the difference, but it beats owing taxes in many cases.
If talking your spouse into changing her filing status is not an option, your only recourse will be to file as married filing separately. Generally this filing status has few advantages, and you are likely to owe more taxes than you would if filing jointly with your spouse. But if you also qualify to file as head of household, there's no reason both you and your wife can't claim this status.
Alan Sembera began writing for local newspapers in Texas and Louisiana. His professional career includes stints as a computer tech, information editor and income tax preparer. Sembera now writes full time about business and technology. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Texas A&M University.