Can Unmarried Couples File Joint Tax Returns?

by Denise Caldwell

The filing status you choose determines your tax rate which means you could lose money by choosing the wrong filing status. Filers should keep this in mind and choose the filing status for which they qualify that provides the most tax benefits. The key qualifier which defines how you will most likely file is whether you are married or unmarried. In most instances, unmarried couples cannot file joint returns.


The first determination you’ll need to make when filing an income tax return is your preferred filing status. Your filing status is determined by a few key variables, such as your marital status and your role in your household. For example, taxpayers who are unmarried, care for dependents, and provide more than half of the support for the household are generally allowed to claim head of household instead of single. It is important to determine your filing status prior to beginning your return since the income limit which determines your requirement to file is directly tied to your filing status. There is a different earnings ceiling for each filing status.


Generally, married taxpayers have the choice between filing separate and joint while unmarried filers have the choice between single or head of household. You are considered unmarried for the entire year if, on the last day of the tax year, you are divorced or legally separated from your spouse. You are considered married for the whole year if, on the last day of the tax year, you are either living together as husband and wife, living together in a common law marriage recognized by your state, or living apart but not under a divorce decree or legal separation. Couples who are unmarried cannot file joint returns.


If you file using the wrong filing status, you can generally correct the error by filing an amended return using form 1040X. You have three years from the date you filed your original return to change your filing status. The only exception to this rule is for joint filers who wish to amend their returns to separate as this change is only allowed for joint returns where one spouse is deceased.


If your spouse died during the year, then you are considered unmarried for the entire year. As long as you did not remarry during the year, you can still file a joint return for you and your deceased spouse. If you remarried, you can file a joint return with your new spouse. Additionally, you may be eligible to file using the qualifying widow or widower filing status.

About the Author

Denise Caldwell is a finance writer who has been writing on taxation and finance since 2006. Her articles appear regularly on websites such as and She has taken what she learned while working at the IRS to provide readers with helpful tax and finance tips. Caldwell received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Howard University.

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