One of the first things you do when filing your federal income tax return is tick the box at the top indicating your filing status.
There are five options: single, head of household, married filing jointly, married filing separately, and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.
For the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward question. That’s because, for federal income tax status, marital status is determined by state law as of the last day of the calendar year (Dec. 31). There’s no math, no crazy formulas: just one date to consider.
If you aren’t married on the last day of the year—either because you were never legally married or you were legally separated or divorced, according to the laws of your state—you can file as single.
Heads of Household (HOH)
If you aren’t married and you provide more than half of the household expenses for a qualifying child or dependent, you may be able to file as Head of Household. HOH can be tricky, since you can also use this status if you are considered unmarried according to IRS rules; for a still-married taxpayer, that means that you lived apart from your spouse during the last six months of the tax year and filed a separate return (you must still provide more than half of the household expenses for a qualifying child or dependent).
If you’re married on Dec. 31, you are considered married for the year: it doesn’t matter if you got married that same day. It typically doesn’t matter whether you lived together or how you referred to yourself: Married is married.
As a married person, you can file as married filing jointly (MFJ) or married filing separately (MFS). Despite its unfriendly sounding name, MFS doesn’t have anything to do with the state of your marriage. It’s simply a tax choice where married taxpayers opt to file separate returns. That can happen if you do not want to be responsible for your spouse’s share of the tax, or because filing separately may result in a lower total tax. You may also want to file as MFS to avoid an offset of your refund if your spouse has outstanding debts like child support arrears or past-due student loans.
Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child
If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the whole year—unless you remarry before the end of the tax year. If you remarry, you’ll file as married with your new spouse, and your deceased spouse’s filing status will be married filing separately for the year. If, however, you don’t remarry for the next two years and you have a qualifying child or stepchild for whom you provided more than half of the household expenses, you may able to file as a qualifying widow(er).
Fixing Your Mistakes
But what if you make a mistake? Or, what if—as is increasingly the case in 2021—you want to use a different filing status to qualify for a stimulus check or a Covid-19 relief-related tax credit, but you’ve already filed your tax return? Before you file another return, here’s what you need to know.
First things first: If you need to amend your tax return, do not file a second tax return. Doing so will significantly slow down processing and possibly flag your return for examination.
If you need to fix your tax return, you’ll file Form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. But you’ll want to act relatively quickly. For federal income tax purposes, you have three years from the due date of the original return to file your amended return.
To speed things up, you may be able to e-file your amended return. Traditionally, amended returns were always filed on paper, but now you can electronically amend 2019 and 2020 returns that were initially e-filed. Unfortunately, 2019 and 2020 returns originally filed on paper must be amended on paper.
Changing Your Status
Your amended return should reflect your filing status as of the last day of the calendar year. Don’t file an amended return because your status changed after the calendar year: If you got a divorce on Jan. 1, 2021, you are still considered married for 2020.
You’ll also want to pay attention to the income, deductions, and other information reported on the return. Your amended return must be consistent with the filing status you choose. For example, you can’t claim the earned income tax credit (EITC) if your filing status is MFS even if you qualified previously.
If you’re simply correcting an error—for example, you felt single but you really weren’t—you’ll check the correct box and report your tax information as appropriate. Offer a short explanation for the change in Part III of the return.
Most of the time, making the switch is easy. However, while you can switch from MFS to MFJ without a problem, you can’t change from MFJ to MFS after the due date of the original return. Any change to filing status must be done before the filing deadline.
After you tick the correct box, you’ll want to confirm that you’ve reported the income and other tax items—like deductions and credits—attributable to you.
Sidebar: You may be able to file a superseding return to make the change from MFJ to MFS before the due date. If you’re not sure what that means, check with a tax professional.
The Big Exception
This works for everyone, right? Not exactly. If you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin) and file MFS, you must report half of all community income and all of your individual income on your return. That means that amending to MFS won’t always result in a lower tax bill—so check the numbers before making a move.
State Tax Returns
And since we’re talking about where you live, don’t forget about state tax returns: a change made on your federal return may affect your state taxes.
Refunds, Payments, and Status
You can check the status of your paper or electronically filed amended return using the Where’s My Amended Return? tool on the IRS website or call 1-866-464-2050. Give it some time. The IRS says to wait three weeks after you file your amended return to check for a receipt, but amended returns can take up to 16 weeks (not a typo) to process.
If amending your return results in payment due, you’ll want to pay as quickly as possible since interest and penalty begin to accrue on the due date of the return (not the filing date).
If amending your return results in a refund—and let’s face it, that’s typically the goal—you will get a paper check. A refund from an amended return cannot be direct-deposited. If you have a refund check from your original return, you can cash the original refund check, if any, while waiting for any additional refund or adjustment.
Think Before You File
In a hectic filing season, you may be tempted to file now and amend later. While you can amend a return, purposefully making a mistake to get a tax benefit can backfire. For example, if you get a divorce for the sole purpose of filing single and then get remarried the next tax year, you and your spouse must file as married individuals in both years. The better strategy is to consider your options and make the best choice when you file—and amend only when necessary.