The Internal Revenue Service has its own legal definition of your marital status. You are still married, according to the IRS, if your divorce is not final by the end of the tax year for your return. Unless you have a divorce decree, you cannot file as unmarried or head of household even if you are separated from your spouse.
Typically, you have two filing options while divorce or separation proceedings are pending. You can file as a married person jointly. Or you may elect to file as married, filing separately especially if you and your spouse are not cooperating or suspect that your spouse is underreporting income.
A married person who files separately may be ineligible for credits and deductions that can lower their taxes. These include educational deductions and credits, the student loan interest deduction, the Child and Dependent Care Credit and the Earned Income Credit.
If you file a separate return, you and your spouse must decide who will claim your children on your tax returns. The parent with sole custody may usually claim their children. Agreement also helps prevent confusion if a spouse has not moved out of the house or if the parents have joint custody.
A custodial parent may also assign the child’s dependent status to a non-custodial parent who does not have custody because there are tax benefits when that spouse has a higher income. The odds of an IRS audit rise greatly if both parents claim a child as a dependent.
The IRS does not consider any payments made to support your spouse before the divorce is final as spousal support unless the payments were made under a court order and identified as alimony.
Before 2018, alimony payments were usually deductible by the paying spouse. But the IRS only permitted the deduction if support payments were contained in a written divorce or separation agreement.