Many states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex couples to file joint returns. With this right comes tax complications for qualifying couples.
The good news for many gay and lesbian couples: A growing number of states allow them to file joint state income tax returns. The other good news: The federal government now allows married same sex couples to file joint federal income tax returns. However, for unmarried couples, the federal government and the states can have starkly different rules, which can make taking advantage of domestic partnership arrangements difficult at tax time. Here’s help to guide you through the nuances of filing as a couple—and finding the method that offers you the best tax advantages.
If you are married under state law then your marriage is recognized under federal law for tax filing purposes. This is true even if you are domiciled in a state that doesn't recognize your marriage. In this case, you can file a joint federal tax return and a single filing status state tax return.
In states where same sex couples can marry and in the those that recognize civil unions or registered domestic partners, qualifying couples can file joint state income tax returns. However, only married couples can file jointly at the federal level.
In California, certain unmarried heterosexual couples who live together can also register as domestic partners and file joint state tax returns. To qualify, one of the partners must be at least age 62. Filing a federal joint return with the IRS is prohibited for them as well.
These differing laws can create complicated tax filing situations:
- Married and domiciled in a state that recognizes your marriage—married filing for federal and state.
- Married and not domiciled in a state that recognizes your marriage—married filing for federal but not for state.
- Recognized domestic partners in the state—single filing for federal but married filing for state.
- Unrecognized domestic partners in the state—single filing for federal and state.
Federal laws come into play when filing your state tax returns. Most states base their joint return computations on the figures from your joint federal return. This means that while married couples only have to file two returns - one for federal and one for state—generally, unmarried domestic partners must complete a total of four tax returns.
- First, each partner must complete an individual federal tax return to file with the IRS.
- Second, the couple must create a mock or dummy joint federal return combining income, adjustments, deductions and credits.
- Finally, they use that mock return as the jumping off point to prepare a joint state tax return.
What to do
If you aren't allowed to file a joint federal return, but are required to file the equivalent of a married-filing-jointly or married-filing-separately return in your state, the first step is to be sure you understand the rules in your state. Here are the websites for your state’s tax department:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire (Dividends and interest only)
- New Jersey
- New York
TurboTax will greatly simplify the process of completing the mock federal return. Should you send a copy of the mock federal return to the state? That depends on where you live. Vermont, for example, wants to see it; the District of Columbia does not. TurboTax has special instructions to help domestic partners, those in civil unions and married same-sex couples complete their state returns.
Win or lose?
All married couples have the choice to file jointly or separately for federal taxes. Some states offer this option as well.
If your state offers you the option of filing two single returns or filing jointly as a couple, a big question is whether filing a joint return on the state level will save or cost you money. Because so much has been written about the so-called marriage tax penalty, the possibility that a married couple pays more federal income tax than the combined total that the couple would owe if they were still single—you might assume you’ll pay more by filing jointly. That’s not necessarily so. (Even at the federal level for example, more couples enjoy a marriage tax bonus instead of a marriage tax penalty.)
To find out for sure which filing method is better, you’ll need to calculate your taxes BOTH ways: filing jointly and filing two single state returns Using TurboTax can make it much easier to test different filing scenarios without spending a great deal of time on it.