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Georgia Southern University expert offers tips on income tax filing status

04-12 taxIt’s one of the first questions on your income tax form and a box that many people check without giving much thought, but your marital status can have a big impact on your income tax return.

Jill Lockwood, interim director of the School of Accountancy in Georgia Southern University’s College of Business Administration, explains what you need to know about identifying your filing status:

  • If you were married for part of the year, a simple question determines whether you file as married or single. Were you married or single on the last day of the year? If you were single for all of 2009 but were married on December 31, your filing status is “married.” If you were married for all of 2009 but divorced or were granted a legal separation on December 31, you are single.
  • That rule has one exception — if your spouse died during 2009, you are classified as married for 2009. If you remain unmarried but maintain a household for a dependent child for 2010 and 2011, you are considered to be married for those years as well.
  • If you are single, you must decide if you are just plain single or a ‘head of household.” The standard deductions for 2009 are $5,700 for single and $8,350 for head of household. You become a ‘head of household” by paying more than half the costs for maintaining a household for more than half the year for a qualifying child or other qualifying relative, or paying more than half the costs of maintaining a separate household for a parent who also qualifies as your dependent.
  • If you are married, you must weigh the pros and cons of married filing separately or married filing joint return. You may choose to be “married filing jointly” even if you had no income for that year. The standard deduction is $11,400 for “married filing jointly” and only $5,700 for ‘married filing separately.” However, if your spouse itemizes his or her deductions, you must itemize as well, even if you have no itemized deductions.
  • If you are separated from your spouse, you may qualify as an “abandoned spouse” and be treated as a head of household with a standard deduction of $8,350 with no obligation to itemize deductions. To qualify, you must be married on the last day of the year and not legally separated or divorced. You must file a tax return that is separate from your spouse (even if you had no income, and owe no tax, I recommend filing the return). You must also pay more than half the costs for maintaining a household for more than half the year for a child or other dependent. Finally, you must have lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year.
  • A word of caution — if you choose “married filing jointly,” you are jointly and severally liable for any unpaid tax from the return you have signed. If your spouse claimed deductions that were not properly documented or hid income that should have been reported, the IRS can come after you for all unpaid taxes, interest and penalties — even if you are divorced from your spouse in the year the discrepancy is found. Your only recourse is to claim you were an “innocent spouse.” You have the burden of proving you did not know the tax return you signed was not correct. That may be difficult to prove if you lived a lavish lifestyle for the tax year but reported modest income.

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