Skip to content

Frequently Asked Questions: Filing Status

Q: What is one's filing status when a spouse dies during the year? Does one need to attach the death certificate to the tax return?

A: For the year of death, you may still file a joint return if not remarried by year-end. The surviving spouse can sign the return for the deceased spouse as long as no personal representative has been appointed. Otherwise, the personal representative would have to sign the joint return.

The word "deceased," the decedent's name, and the date of death should be written across the top of the tax return. In the name-and-address section, include the names of both spouses. Also include the spouse's Social Security number, and claim both personal exemptions. On the signature line, where it reads "spouse's signature," write "filing as surviving spouse" or have the personal representative sign.

There is no need to attach a copy of the death certificate to the federal tax return. However, certain states do require a copy of the death certificate on a taxpayer's final return.

Q: If I'm married, must I file as married?

A: If you were married on the last day of the year, you must file as either married filing joint or married filing separate. However, if you can meet the following rules, you might be able to file as head of household:

  • You do not file a joint return.
  • You paid more than half the cost of keeping up your home for the tax year.
  • Your spouse did not live with you for even one day in your home during the last 6 months of the tax year. The spouse is considered as living in the home even if temporarily absent because of special circumstances, such as illness or business.
  • Your home was the main home of your child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child for more than half the year.
  • You must be able to claim an exemption for the child, unless you cannot claim the exemption only because the non-custodial parent is allowed to claim the exemption.

Q: Can I file as single even though my divorce is not final? I did not live with my spouse at all this year.

A: Whether you are married or unmarried will depend upon state and federal law. Tax law says an individual legally separated from his or her spouse under a decree of divorce or a decree of separate maintenance shall not be considered as married.

Many couples are legally separated but are still considered married under state and federal law. If your divorce is not final, you are still married unless your state allows for a decree of separate maintenance. You will need to ask your attorney whether your current legal status meets the definition of a decree of separate maintenance.

Q: Am I better off filing as head of household or as a qualified widow?

A: The tax rates for qualified widows or widowers are the same as for couples filing a joint return. These tax rates are lower than the tax rates for a head of household. In the year of the death of your spouse, you can still file a joint return.

Q: Now that my wife and I live apart, should we file a joint return or separate ones and both claim head of household? We have no children.

A: You have misunderstood the meaning of the "Head of Household" (HOH) filing status. One of the requirements for HOH is that you have a qualifying child living with you in your home for which you have paid more than half the living expenses during the year. Failing that, you both may only file as married separate or married joint. Only you can decide whether it makes sense to file as married separate or to file jointly.

Assuming you both still get along, why don't you prepare your returns both ways to at least find out how your tax liability changes? Once you know the financial implications, you can discuss the legal issue of joint tax liability on a joint return.

Q: If unmarried parents of an infant child are living together with the child for the entire year, and both parents are contributing to the cost of maintaining the household for the child and themselves, may they both file as head of household?

A: Only one parent in the household can file as head of household. A taxpayer filing as head of household must furnish more than half the cost of maintaining the household. The infant is the qualifying child of each parent. The parent who provided more than half of the cost of maintaining that household may file as head of household. The other parent would have to file as single.

Through the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide program, AARP Foundation is providing online tax counseling as a public service, and cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided. Your taxes are your responsibility. You are solely responsible for what you do in your own tax situation.

The AARP Foundation Tax-Aide Program is a volunteer-run, free tax-preparation and assistance service offered to low- and middle-income taxpayers with special attention to those age 60 and older. Our volunteers are trained and IRS-certified to understand individual federal-tax issues. Our volunteers provide tax assistance as a public service and cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided.