Filing taxes for yourself is hard enough. Filing them on behalf of someone recently deceased is even harder, especially when you’re dealing with the emotional aftermath of your loss.
While nothing can ease the emotional aftermath of your loss, understanding the basics of filing taxes for someone who’s passed away can reduce your financial stress.
Here are 10 essential tips that can help you get started.
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A surviving spouse, executor, or personal representative may file taxes for a deceased individual
If the deceased individual (often referred to as the “decedent” in legal documents) was married at the time of their death, the surviving spouse will usually file their partner’s taxes.
Alternatively, whoever is named as the estate executor in the decedent’s will can file the decedent’s personal taxes. The executor could be a surviving spouse, adult child, trusted friend or relative, trusted business partner, or another personal representative.
If the decedent didn’t leave behind a will or a surviving partner, the court will appoint an estate administrator to perform the role instead.
If your spouse died over the last tax year and you haven’t remarried, you can file separately or jointly
If your spouse passed away during the previous tax year (which spans January 1 through December 31), you can choose between two tax-filing statuses: married filing separately or married filing jointly.
Typically, filing jointly as a married couple will maximize your tax return, but you should ask your accountant or tax professional for financial advice specific to your situation.
If you remarried during the same tax year your former spouse passed away, you still need to file their taxes
If you were remarried before the final day of the tax year, you’ll file either a joint or separate tax return with your current spouse. You’ll still need to file your deceased spouse’s taxes, but mark their filing status as “married filing separately” rather than “married filing jointly.”
Talk to your accountant for more information on correctly filing your and your former spouse’s taxes.
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If you’re a qualifying widow or widower, you might be able to file jointly for the next two years
Filing taxes jointly as a married couple is usually the most financially beneficial option for married partners.
Depending on your situation — specifically, if you’re still living with and supporting dependents — you could continue to file jointly even if your spouse has passed away. Again, an accountant can give you the most helpful tax-filing advice tailored to your situation.
You can note the taxpayer’s death on the tax return without providing other notice to the IRS
Some government agencies require you to provide written notice of a taxpayer’s death.
For instance, if you’re applying for survivor benefits based on your spouse’s Social Security benefits, you’ll need to contact the Social Security Administration over the phone to report the death.
However, to alert the IRS to a taxpayer’s death, you don’t need to do anything beyond writing the decedent’s name, their date of death, and the word “deceased” across the top of your filed paper tax forms.
Unless you request an extension, the decedent’s taxes are due by the normal tax deadline
When you’re filing a tax return for a deceased spouse, you don’t automatically get any sort of tax filing extension. Instead, taxes for you and the decedent are due on tax day. The deadline for the 2023 tax filing season is Monday, April 15, 2024.
Extensions give you extra time to file tax paperwork, but not extra time to pay money owed
If you’re having difficulty accessing all the financial documents you need to accurately file the decedent’s taxes, you can apply for a tax filing extension through the IRS’s website. The extension will allow you to file your tax paperwork until October 15, 2024.
However, an extension applies to paperwork only, not to paying any tax amounts the decedent may owe to various tax bureaus. You must pay those taxes by tax day.
If you can’t afford to pay taxes owed, you might be able to set up a payment plan
Dealing with funeral expenses, medical costs, and other financial setbacks can make it hard to pay taxes you and your deceased spouse owe from the previous tax year.
Unfortunately, while you might not be liable for paying your deceased spouse’s other debts, you’re typically liable for any back taxes you owe as a married couple if you claim a joint filing status.
But if you’re struggling to make tax payments, you can contact the IRS about setting up a payment or installment plan instead of making one huge lump-sum payment. Most individuals can request a payment plan online.
Depending on when the decedent passed away, you might have to file their taxes for more than one tax year
If your deceased spouse passed away between January and April, you’ll likely end up filing taxes on their behalf twice: Once for the tax year before their death and once for the tax year during which they passed away.
Note that in the IRS’s eyes, you’re considered married for the entire tax year during which your spouse died.
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If you filed separately, not jointly, and the decedent was owed a tax return, you’ll need to file Form 1310
If the deceased individual was owed a tax return (rather than owing money to the government), you’ll need to submit Form 1310 to claim a refund on their behalf.
The form will have you check a box declaring yourself the surviving spouse, personal representative, or estate representative. You’ll also need the decedent’s Social Security number, date of birth, and last address.
You do not need to submit Form 1310 if you're filing taxes jointly with your deceased spouse. If you’re married and filing jointly, you’ll receive your refund without any additional forms.
You only need to submit Form 1310 if you filed taxes separately from your deceased spouse or are neither a spouse nor a personal representative.
You have plenty to deal with after the death of a spouse, both emotionally and financially. The sooner you take care of the financial tasks, the quicker you can return to focusing on your emotional health.
Don’t be afraid to contact an accountant or tax professional for help. While the general guidelines included here should give you a good start, it’s essential to consult with a professional so you don't get caught off guard by something you missed.