How does divorce change your taxes?

Estranged couple sitting back to back on opposite ends of a couch wondering how to file their taxes after their divorce.Image: Estranged couple sitting back to back on opposite ends of a couch wondering how to file their taxes after their divorce.

In a Nutshell

Divorce can profoundly change your life, as well as your taxes. From updating your filing status to understanding how to handle alimony and child support, it’s better to be prepared when it comes to your federal income taxes. Here are some things to know about filing taxes after divorce.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and a member of the Credit Karma product specialist team, led by Senior Manager of Operations Christina Taylor. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

Whether you’ve been married five years or 55 hours (à la Britney Spears), when your marriage ends, your tax situation changes.

But while divorce ends your legal marriage, it doesn’t terminate your or your ex’s obligation to pay your fair share of federal income tax. If your divorce is final by Dec. 31 of the tax-filing year, the IRS will consider you unmarried for the entire year and you won’t be able to file a joint return.

When it comes to your taxes, there are some things you’ll need to consider after divorce.

Choosing a new filing status

If you’re no longer married, you can’t file your federal income taxes with a status of “married filing jointly” or even “married filing separately.” You’ll need to choose between “single” or “head of household,” depending on how you qualify.

Filing as head of household has some big benefits compared to filing as single, including a higher standard deduction, eligibility for some valuable tax credits, and often a lower tax rate. But you can only file as head of household if …

  • You’re not considered married as of Dec. 31 of the year for which you’re filing the tax return.
  • You paid at least half the cost of keeping up a home during the year in which you’re filing.
  • You have a “qualifying person” who either lived with you for at least half the year or who meets other specific requirements, including being temporarily absent for specific reasons. Some examples are children attending school, married children you claim as dependents, or qualifying parents you support and claim as dependents even if they don’t live with you.

After divorce, you and your ex can’t both file as head of household based on shared support and care for the same child or children. Children can count as qualifying persons only for the custodial parent, the parent that the child lives with for most of the year. If both parents share the child for an equal amount of time, the parent whose adjusted gross income is higher can claim the child for the purposes of filing as head of household. Keep in mind, divorce decrees typically establish who is the custodial parent.

The noncustodial parent (the parent that the child lives with for a shorter amount of time) can’t use the child to claim head-of-household status. Even if the custodial parent releases the right to claim the child by signing IRS Form 8332 (which allows the noncustodial parent to claim the child as a dependent), there’s no exception for head-of-household status.

Deciding who claims dependent children

Speaking of claiming children as dependents — only one parent gets to do that when filing taxes after divorce. Typically, the parent who gets the deduction is the custodial parent. But as we mentioned, an exception can be made using Form 8332, which is signed by the custodial parent (releasing that parent’s claim) and filed with the noncustodial parent’s taxes.

You may be wondering why the claim matters, since the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act signed into law in 2017 suspended the dependency exemption. Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, taxpayers could deduct up to $4,050 from taxable income for each dependent. That deduction will not be available again until Jan. 1, 2026.

But it still benefits a custodial parent to claim a child as a dependent both to get head-of-household status and to become eligible for certain tax credits and other deductions, such as …

Because a noncustodial parent won’t be able to claim head-of-household status if gaining the right to claim a child as a dependent, and with tax reform eliminating the dependent deduction, there’s not much incentive to negotiate the arrangement. To claim the tax credits that remain, you’d need to actually be the custodial parent and claim your child as a dependent.

What is the earned income tax credit?

Reporting alimony and child support

As part of your divorce decree, you may agree to pay your ex-spouse alimony. Or you may be required to pay child support. Whenever money changes hands in either situation, it’s important to understand the potential impact on your taxes.

Whether you can deduct alimony you pay, or must include alimony payments you receive as gross income, depends on when your divorce was finalized.

If you divorced by Dec. 31, 2018, you can deduct alimony you’ve paid from your taxable income. If you receive alimony as part of a divorce agreement prior to Dec. 31, 2018, you’ll need to report it as income for the year.

However, tax reform has changed how the IRS treats alimony. For divorces finalized after Dec. 31, 2018, you won’t be able to deduct any alimony you pay. But if you’re the recipient of alimony, you won’t have to include those payments in your taxable income.

As for child support, it’s never been tax deductible and wasn’t ever considered income for tax purposes. Tax reform didn’t change that.

Handling a home sale

Divorce typically means separating your home into two households — that can include selling your house. Divorcing couples may decide to sell a house for a number of reasons — perhaps because neither can afford it independently or they can’t agree who should keep it.

If you sell your home at a profit, this might have implications for your taxes, as you could owe capital gains taxes on your portion of the profit. But many divorcing couples qualify to exclude part of those gains, which helps to avoid getting hit with a big tax bill.

If you owned your house and used it as your main home for two of the five years before selling, and haven’t excluded capital gains from the sale of any other house within the previous two years, you could exclude up to $500,000 in gains if you sell the house while you still file a joint return.

If you’re already divorced and both spouses end up with partial ownership of the home, each could exclude up to $250,000 in gains. Of course, if only one of you ends up owning the house, that person could exclude just $250,000 as a single filer, half the amount of the joint-filing and dual-ownership exclusions.

Sharing retirement accounts

There’s another key issue that arises in divorce settlements: What happens to retirement plans?

In many cases, couples must divide retirement benefits when a marriage ends. One spouse may be entitled to a share of the other’s workplace pension, for example. But companies won’t pay pension money immediately, so both ex-spouses will have to wait to get their fair share.

To solve this problem, the divorce court may issue a domestic relations order, or a qualified domestic relations order, as it’s also called. QDROs provide instructions to pension plan administrators, specifying that part of a pension needs to be paid to an alternate payee: the ex-spouse.

QDROs need to be specific about who will receive payments, the schedule for when those payments will be made, and the percentage or amount of benefits that are to be paid to the alternate payee.

Finally, another key issue to consider when filing taxes after divorce: Whether you can take a tax deduction for all those expensive legal fees you had to pay to end your marriage. Unfortunately, the answer is probably no. Legal fees aren’t tax deductible.

And although previously you might have been able to deduct legal fees you paid for tax advice in connection with getting a divorce or to get alimony, tax reform has changed things. That type of expense was subject to the 2% floor, meaning you could only deduct it if the total of your itemized expenses exceeded 2% of your adjusted gross income.

But the Tax Cut and Jobs Act has suspended 2% deductions until Jan. 1, 2026.

Bottom line

There’s probably no good way to calculate the emotional costs of ending a marriage, but you can take steps to ensure that filing taxes after divorce goes as smoothly as possible. Notify the IRS of your new filing status, make sure you and your ex are clear on who gets to claim children as dependents, and plan for any capital gains you may realize on the sale of a home.

Relevant sources: IRS Publication 504, Divorced or Separated Individuals | IRS FAQs, Dependents 3 | Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 | IRS Tax Topic No. 602, Child and Dependent Care Credit | IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education | IRS Tax Topic No. 452, Alimony | IRS Tax Topic No. 701, Sale of Your Home | IRS: Retirement Plan Participant Notices – Domestic Relations Orders that Affect Benefits

Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. She has more than a dozen years of experience in tax, accounting and business operations. Christina founded her own accounting consultancy and managed it for more than six years. She codeveloped an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is an Enrolled Agent and the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Christy Rakoczy Bieber is a full-time personal finance and legal writer. She is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and the University of Rochester. Christy was previously a college teacher with experience writing textbo… Read more.