In general, the surviving spouse is considered married for the entire year no matter when the death occurred, and he or she is entitled to file a joint return in the year of the spouse's death. This allows the surviving spouse to take advantage of the lower joint tax rates and to take an exemption for the deceased spouse. However, if a joint return is filed, it must include all income from both spouses for the year.
The surviving spouse is allowed to file a joint return with the deceased spouse only if he or she has not remarried by the end of the year. If he has remarried, he is entitled to file a joint tax return with the new spouse, and the deceased spouse's filing status will be married filing separately for the year.
A joint return reporting the income from a deceased spouse should list both names, with signatures of the executor or administrator and the surviving spouse. If the surviving spouse is also the executor or administrator, he or she should sign as both the estate representative and the surviving spouse.
In the two years following the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse may file his or her federal income tax return as a qualifying widow(er). This filing status allows the surviving spouse to use the advantageous joint tax rates and the highest standard deduction amount if deductions are not itemized. However, during the two years of filing as a qualifying widow(er), the surviving spouse is not entitled to take an exemption for the deceased spouse.
A surviving spouse is eligible to file as a qualifying widow(er) for two years if all of the filing requirements are met each year: the taxpayers were entitled to file a joint tax return in the year of the spouse's death; the surviving spouse has not remarried by the end of the tax year in question; the surviving spouse has a child, stepchild, adopted child, or foster child for whom he or she can claim an exemption; and the surviving spouse has paid more than half of the cost of maintaining a home for both herself and the child.
In the third year following the death, the surviving spouse is not eligible to file as a qualifying widow(er). Instead, he or she may only choose to file as a head of household or single individual (assuming that the taxpayer has not remarried).
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