It’s my annual “Taxes from A to Z” series! If you’re wondering whether you can claim home office expenses or whether to deduct a capital loss, you won’t want to miss a single letter.

S is for Surviving Spouse

‘Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes. 

That’s never more true than at tax time. Unfortunately, dying doesn’t result in a pass on filing taxes. By law, you must file a final return for a decedent (a person who died) if he or she meets the filing requirements as of the date of death. The bigger question, however, tends to be, “What do I do if I’m the surviving spouse?” Here’s what you need to know:

If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the whole year and can choose to married filing jointly as your filing status. If your spouse died during the year and you file a joint return, you generally can claim your spouse’s personal exemption (remember there are no personal exemptions in 2018). If you remarry during the year, however, you can’t claim an exemption for your deceased spouse (some tricky rules apply if you don’t have any gross income, so check with a tax professional if that’s the case).

If you have dependent children, you may be able to file as qualifying widow(er) with dependent child for the two years following the year in which your spouse died. For example, if your spouse died in 2017, you would file as married filing jointly for 2017 (see above) and for 2018 and 2019, you can elect to file as qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.

If your spouse died in 2018 before filing a 2017 return, you can still file for 2017 as married filing jointly. But don’t automatically assume you should sign the return for your spouse: If your spouse died before signing the return, the executor or administrator must sign the return for your spouse (that might be you but isn’t always). If no one been appointed as executor or administrator, you can sign the return for your spouse and write “Filing as surviving spouse” under the signature line.

Once you file a joint return, you typically can’t choose to file separate returns after the due date of the return. However, the executor or administrator can change a joint return elected by the surviving spouse to a separate return for the decedent. The executor or administrator has one year from the due date of the return, including extensions, to make that change.

For your taxes from A to Z, here’s the rest of the series:

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney and tax writer.

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