Do You Have to File Married on Taxes?

by Megan Cook, C.P.A., C.F.E., C.M.A., M.Accy ; Updated July 27, 2017
Do We Have to File as Married?

Filing status is one of the first things listed on your tax return. Making sure you indicate the proper filing status is your first step in filing an accurate return. Certain individuals in difficult situations wonder about the technicalities of the tax code. Some people even wonder if they have to file married on their taxes. The simple answer to this question is “yes," but there are a few exceptions for certain citizens in specific situations.

IRS Filing Status Options

Your marriage status as of the last day of the tax year determines your filing status. This means that even if you got married on December 31st, the IRS will count you and your spouse as one taxable unit. Whether or not you file Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately will depend on your preferences and individual tax situation. Likewise, if your divorce is finalized on the last day of the year, you'll have to file as single or head of household status for that tax year.

Even though choosing married status may seem cut-and-dried, there are certain instances in which the IRS allows certain individuals who may be technically married to file tax returns using the single status.

Legal Separation

Sometimes a couple is still legally married, but is legally separated. The IRS treats legal separation as if the couple is not married. This is because both spouses are maintaining households separate from each other. Do not use a legal separation as a tax-planning scheme. The IRS looks at substance over form, and if an IRS auditor suspects that your legal separation is a way to minimize your tax liability, expect the IRS to recalculate your tax liability using a married status.

Same-Sex Marraige

Under the Federal Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, partners from same-sex marriages cannot elect a married filing status on their federal tax return. This is because the IRS defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife, and the word 'spouse' refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.” Same-sex partners will need to keep their finances separate and file separate tax returns annually.

Common-Law Marriage

Certain states recognize common-law marriages as legal marriages. Couples in common-law marriages live together and hold themselves as a married couple, even though they have not filed the customary marriage paperwork with their state. If you live in a state that recognizes common-law marriage, you can elect a married filing status on your federal tax return. Those in common-law states that question their individual requirements should seek the assistance of a qualified tax professional to answer any questions.

Deceased Spouse

If your spouse passed away during the tax year, you may be afraid that you will have to elect a single or head of household tax status. Surviving spouses with dependent children can benefit from the same taxation as couples that file married filing a joint tax return for the two tax years immediately after the death of their spouse; although you won’t check the box “Married Filing Jointly,” you will elect the "Qualifying Widow(er) With Dependent Child" filing status. This status uses the married filing jointly tax tables and tax law to calculate your federal tax liability.

About the Author

Megan Cook is a Certified Public Accountant as well as a Certified Management Accountant and Certified Fraud Examiner. She has been writing online since 2006 and has been published on a variety of websites. Cook has a bachelor's degree in accounting from Arkansas State University and a master's degree from Ole Miss.

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