Created by FindLaw's team of legal writers and editors | Last reviewed June 20, 2016
Every year, everyone who makes money in the U.S. must fill out a tax return and file it with the IRS by April 15th. The process inspires dread among anyone who performs this task without the help of an accountant. The forms are complicated, and the definitions of terms like “dependent” and “exemption” can be difficult to understand. This section has articles that review the definitions of these words and many more. It also has an explanation of the entire tax process: from choosing the right forms to picking the right deductions to sending your completed return to the IRS. Additionally, the articles review what to do if you cannot finish your return on time.
Determining Tax Filing Status
For tax purposes your marital status on the last day of the year determines your filing status for the entire year. If you are unmarried, legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree under state law, and do not qualify for another filing status you should file as "single." Anyone else must select to file as either married or head of household.
Head of household status refers to tax filers who are unmarried and not qualified to file as a qualifying widow or widower with a dependent child. Head of household taxpayers must also provide more than half the cost of maintaining their home as the primary residence of a qualifying person. If you are married you may still qualify as head of household and file separate taxes if your spouse has not lived at home during the last six months of the tax year, providing more than half of the cost of maintaining your home for at least half the tax year was on account of a qualifying child.
Married taxpayers may file a joint return or separate returns. If your spouse died in the current year and you didn't remarry you can still file a joint return. If your spouse died within the last two years you can file taxes as a qualifying widow or widower. To qualify you must have been entitled to file a joint return with your spouse the year they died, you must not have remarried before the end of the tax year, you must have a child for whom you claim a dependency exemption, and you must pay more than half the cost of keeping up your home in which you and the qualifying child reside.
Marriage Tax Penalty
The "marriage penalty" refers to the difference between the federal income tax assessed on the joint income earned by a married couple and the federal income tax assessed to two single individuals filing separate returns. Marriage penalties existed in several contexts. The standard deduction for married couples was $1,500 less than the standard deduction for two single taxpayers and qualification for the 15% tax bracket for married couples required earnings of $8,450 less than the cutoff amount for two single taxpayers.
Legislation in 2001 reduced these penalties, though the marriage penalty tax often still applies where income exceeds the 15% tax bracket. Couples where there is a great disparity between the earnings claimed by the married individuals might still avoid penalty, though couples with similar incomes may still be penalized. There are other contexts where married couples are penalized, including disparities in payments of Social Security benefits.
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