How to File Income Tax If Separated

by John Kibilko ; Updated April 19, 2017
The IRS provides numerous filing options for separated spouses.

There are several tax-filing options available to people who are married but separated. The IRS provides for filing a joint return with your spouse, filing as “Married Filing Separately,” filing a single return or filing as “Head of Household.” All of these options are accompanied by caveats and you must understand the IRS guidelines for each. You also should understand the pros and cons of each filing status. Your tax liability will differ with each option, and you also must get cooperation from your spouse in some cases—which can be a point of contention for many separated couples.

Step 1

File jointly if you and your spouse both agree to do so. You cannot file a joint return without the consent of your spouse, even if you’re separated, except under extraordinary circumstances. With a joint return, you and your spouse report combined income and deduct allowable expenses. This filing normally results in a lower tax liability than other options. Your standard deduction usually is higher (if not itemizing) and you’ll qualify for tax benefits not afforded other filing statuses. Depending on circumstances, you’ll use Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ.

Step 2

Choose to file as “Married Filing Separately.” You must be married to file under this status, although you can be living together or apart. You don’t have to be legally separated and you may actually have to file as “Married Filing Separately” if your spouse doesn’t agree to a joint return and if you don’t qualify for another status, such as head of household. This filing status can prove advantageous if you want to be responsible only for your own taxes or if the status results in a smaller tax burden than filing a joint return. You can use Form 1040 or 1040A and, like with all filing statuses, there are special rules that apply—such as the fact that you can’t take child and dependent care credits in most cases, and the income exclusion amount under your employer's dependent-care assistance program is limited to $2,500 (as opposed to $5,000 with joint returns).

Step 3

Complete Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ if you want to file as “Single.” You can file under this status if you were legally separated from your spouse under a divorce or separation decree on the last day of the tax filing year (for example, Dec. 31 of the previous year). You’ll enjoy far fewer tax benefits than with a “Married Filing Jointly” or “Married Filing Separately” status.

Step 4

File as “Head of Household” if you meet all the following requirements: You meet “considered unmarried” criteria on the last day of the tax year, you paid more than half of all home upkeep for the year, and a “qualifying person” lived with you for more than half the year.


  • To qualify for head-of-household filing status, you must be unmarried or “considered unmarried,” meaning you must meet all five criteria established by the IRS. You and your spouse can change your filing status from separate to joint up to three years after filing, if you determine doing so would result in additional tax benefits.

About the Author

John Kibilko has been writing professionally since 1979. He landed his first professional job with "The Dearborn Press" while still in college. He has since worked as a journalist for several Wayne County newspapers and in corporate communications. He has covered politics, health care, automotive news and police and sports beats. Kibilko earned a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Wayne State University.

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