Going through a divorce is difficult enough without having to guess as to how you should file your taxes. If you are recently divorced, it is important you understand that you cannot file jointly for the tax year in which you were divorced. Once you understand this, you can determine which filing status best fits your particular circumstance.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
If your divorce was final before the end of the tax year, you cannot file a joint return.
Significance of Filing Jointly
The filing status of single applies to filers who are unmarred, divorced or legally separated, while the status of married applies to those taxpayers who are considered married at the end of the tax year. Married filers have the choice between filing separately or jointly. Filing jointly is generally a more advantageous tax status as it has a lower tax rate than that of separate. In addition, separate filers are ineligible to claim a variety of taxes and credits on their returns.
IRS Definition for Married or Unmarried
You are considered married for the entire year if, on the last day of the tax year, you and your spouse are living together as husband and wife, living together in a common law marriage recognized by your state, married and living apart but not legally separated, or married but separated under a decree of the court. If you and your spouse meet any one of these conditions, then you are deemed married for the entire year. If you get divorced during the tax year, then you are obviously divorced on the last day of the tax year. For the purposes of filing, you are considered unmarried for that year.
Filing as Head of Household
Divorced taxpayers can choose between single and head of household as their filing status. Head of household is usually reserved for those taxpayers who pay more than half of the cost associated with maintaining a home for themselves and a qualifying child. A qualifying child is usually a child who is under the age of 19, i.e., step-child, adopted child, birth child or a family member who meets the dependency test. For instance, if you are divorced, have custody of the kids and pay more than half the household costs, then you are considered head of household. All divorced taxpayers who do not fit this category would be required to file single.
Filing Status Included in Divorce Decree
There are instances when the filing status for taxpayers is included in the divorce decree. For example, some judges dictate in their rulings that divorced taxpayers must alternate between head of household and single so that they can each claim the children on alternate years. In some cases, the judge will require that one spouse claim the kids on even years, and the other on odd, or vice versa.