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Know the Special Rules for Joint Return Rates for Surviving Spouses

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Mar 18th 2015
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There’s a special filing break for some widows and widowers. They may be entitled to the benefit of joint return rates for two years after their spouse dies. But this is the IRS we're talking about, so there are a lot of conditions you need to know about.

To start, consider the case of a return for tax year 2014: Make sure to take advantage of this frequently missed tax trimmer for surviving spouses if your spouse died in 2012 or 2013 and you have a dependent child. To get the benefit of this break, just check the box for "qualifying widow(er) with dependent child" on Form 1040 or Form 1040A. (It's unavailable on Form 1040EZ.)         

By way of background, the death of your spouse bars you from filing a joint return, unless you’ve remarried. Nor are you allowed to claim the personal exemption for your spouse as you are on a joint return. Nevertheless, you still might be able to figure your 2014 tax using the rates for a joint filer, which are lower than for a single person or a head of household.

To qualify as a surviving spouse and use joint return rates for 2014, you must meet four requirements:

  • First: You didn’t remarry before Jan.1, 2015.
  • Second: For the year in which your spouse died, you were entitled to file jointly with him or her whether you actually filed that way or not.
  • Third: During all of 2014, your home was the principal residence of your child, adopted child, stepchild, or foster child whom you can claim as a dependent.

Your home needn’t be in the same location for the entire year.

An example: You don’t disqualify yourself for joint return rates merely because you move from one dwelling to another during 2014. And in determining whether your child lived in your home, you’re allowed to ignore temporary absences by your son or daughter because of vacations, sickness, school or military service. But you do become disqualified if you child moves out permanently before the year end or fails to qualify as your dependent.

  • Fourth: You furnish over half the cost of maintaining your home.

In calculating the cost, note the instructions that accompany Form 1040 stating that you’re allowed to count such items as rent, property insurance, real estate taxes, mortgage  interest, upkeep, repairs, utilities, telephone, domestic help, and food consumed within the home.

Don’t count the cost of clothing, education, medical treatment, vacations, life insur­ance, transportation, or the value of work done in the home by you or your child. Nor are you permitted to count the rental value of a home that you provide for your child.

Another break is that 2014’s standard deduction for a surviving spouse is higher ($12,400) than for someone with the filing status of single ($6,200) or head of household ($9,100).

All is not lost if you fail to qualify during 2014 as a surviving spouse who can use the joint-return rates. You still may be able to avoid the single person rates and use the more favorable ones for a head of household. The head of household rates fall about halfway between those for joint filers and those for singles.

About the author:

Julian Block writes and practices law in Larchmont, New York, and was formerly with the IRS as a special agent (criminal investigator) and an attorney. More on this topic is available from “Julian Block’s Year Round Tax Strategies,” available at julianblocktaxexpert.com.

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