It’s Valentine’s Day. Traditionally, it’s a day filled with candy, flowers and fancy dinners, all while celebrating (or alternatively, trying to make sense of) your current relationship. Sometimes, figuring out where that relationship stands can get a little tricky, leading to all of those “It’s complicated” status updates on Facebook (and maybe an extra glass of wine).
While there’s no hard and fast rule for defining your relationship on the internet, the Internal Revenue Service requires a little more certainty.
Here’s your quick guide to figuring it all out:

  • For federal income tax status, marital status is determined by state law as of the last day of the calendar year. If you are married for state purposes on December 31, you are married for federal purposes.
  • It’s the law that matters, not geography or your living arrangements,. You can file as married filing jointly (MFJ) whether or not you lived together with your spouse.
  • Similarly, married filing separate (MFS) doesn’t have anything to do with your living arrangements. MFS is a tax choice where married taxpayers opt to file separate returns. Deductions and credits can be limited so, in most cases, you’re more likely to get a higher tax bill filing MFS than MFJ. If you file MFS, you have to coordinate with your spouse. If one spouse chooses to itemize, the other must also itemize; if one spouse claims the standard deduction, the other must also claim the standard deduction.
  • If you’re not married because you were never legally married under the laws of the U.S. or you were legally separated or divorced according to the laws of your state, you can file as single. You can’t file as single just because you feel single: if you live by yourself but you’re still legally married, that doesn’t make you single.
  • If you are unmarried and provide a home for a dependent, you may be able to file as Head of Household (HOH). You must be single, divorced or considered unmarried at the end of the tax year and have paid more than 50% to keep a home for the entire tax year with your dependent or a parent who was a dependent. You may be considered unmarried for purposes of HOH if all of the following apply: you lived apart from your spouse for the last 6 months of the tax year (don’t count temporary absences for business, medical care, school, or military service); you file a separate tax return from your spouse; you paid over half the cost of keeping up your home for the tax year; your home was the main home of your child, stepchild, or foster child for more than half of the tax year; and you can or could claim the child as your dependent.
  • Widowed? If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married to your former spouse for the whole year – unless you remarry before the end of the tax year. If you do remarry, you will file as married with your new spouse; your deceased spouse’s filing status will be married filing separately for that year.
  • Widowed with a dependent? If your spouse died during the year and you have a dependent in the home, you can, for the next two years, opt to file as qualifying widow(er) with dependent child so long as you don’t get remarried.
  • When it comes to same sex marriage, there’s no trick: married is married.
  • Remember that state law matters, not simply how you hold yourself out. Since only a few states still recognize common law marriages, check to make sure that yours does before checking the box.
  • Community property states may have different rules when it comes to reporting income from separately owned property – be sure to check those rules before you file.

There may be a situation where more than one filing status applies. In that event, you’ll want to run the numbers and choose the one that will result in the least amount of tax.
See? Not too bad. In fact, when it comes to making sense of your relationships, the easier part may be figuring it out for Uncle Sam. The harder part may be explaining it to your mom (or dad).

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Author

Kelly Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer and podcaster.

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