Can You Go to Jail for Filing Single When Married?

There are two things we all agree are the worst: death and taxes. Fortunately, death only comes once. Taxes, on the other hand, feel too expensive for half of all Americans.

Part of the reason we hate them likely comes down to how complicated they are. There are tax brackets, exemptions, quarterly payments, and on and on. Then there’s the biggest question: choosing your filing status.

Suppose you are married but decide to file single for tax benefits. Can you go to jail for filing single when married? 

Follow along as we discuss tax law and the consequences of incorrect filing.

Types of Filing Statuses

Everyone has to file under one filing status during tax season. This includes the following options:

  • Filing as a single person
  • Filing jointly as a married couple
  • Filing separately as a married couple

These classifications are critical when filing taxes. They determine what your tax liability is. The government uses this metric to determine how much you owe and what you can write off.

All of these statuses have unique advantages and disadvantages. For this reason, the government allows married couples to file jointly or separately. Depending on your unique circumstances, one might be preferable to the other.

Tax law focuses primarily on how much income you make per year. This determines which tax bracket you fall under and how much you pay. 

Of course, you cannot choose whichever status you want. Strict qualifications determine which status you can legally fall under.

Requirements to File Single

To file single you must fall under the following requirements: 

First, you must be unmarried. This includes anyone who is legally separated or in divorce proceedings.

Second, you must not qualify as a head of household. Finally, you cannot be a qualifying widow or widower. You must meet the above qualifications by the last day of the taxable year.

Benefits of Filing Single

Why would someone want to file as single? Well, there are a few unique, circumstantial benefits.

First, you are usually in a smaller tax bracket. When you file jointly, you combine your income. This results in paying much higher taxes.

Second, filing single is much easier. There’s far less paperwork regarding dependents and your spouse. Most single people file only the basic tax forms and little else.

Finally, some benefits are more readily available to single people. Take, for example, education write-offs. Many of these are more generous for single filers.

Can You Go to Jail for Filing Single When Married?

As mentioned above, being unmarried is a requirement for single filing. Having a legally recognized marriage disqualifies you from this tax status.

You cannot, under any circumstances, file as single while married. You must be legally separated, divorced, or widowed.

To answer the question short and simple: yes. Filing single as a married person could land you in jail. We strongly advise against it, so let’s go into the reasons why.

What Are the Consequences of Illegally Filing Single?

The penalty is the same for everyone who uses a false tax status. There are two components:

  • Jail time of up to three years
  • A fine no greater than $250,000 

Keep in mind, there is no leniency for this sort of mistake. The IRS warns you about misrepresenting your tax status on the forms. A false declaration puts you in penalty of perjury.

The tax form that you use reminds you frequently to double-check the information. Everything must be accurate. Even innocent mistakes could result in legal penalties.

Tax crimes are some of the most serious. Many of them are felonies. Even if you walk away from this, it could do serious damage to your reputation.

Think Like the IRS

It’s important to view marriage the way the IRS does. Some people assume that their perception of marriage is what counts. This is false.

If the IRS has reason to believe that you are married, that’s what counts. This includes common-law marriages or last-second marriages. Even living apart, you are still married barring officially-recognized legal separation. 

Tax Benefits of Marriage

The main reason people file single is for those big deductions. Single people have to rely on one income. As a result, the government subsidizes some of their financial needs.

However, many would argue that the tax benefits of marriage are even better. Joint filers get the biggest standard deductions. They qualify for a large number of tax credits, including child deduction credits.

Even at higher combined incomes, they get more generous tax breaks. There’s very little reason not to file with a joint bank account.

Reasons for Filing Separately 

Of course, you can always file separately from your legally married partner. The benefits are not as substantial. In certain unique situations, though, there is good reason to do so.

  • To deal with a large amount of medical debt
  • To claim more medical deductions 
  • To reduce individual student loan payments 
  • If you and your partner plan to divorce

Married individuals filing separately miss out on joint filing benefits. This is why some may consider filing single. As you can see, the penalties and risks are not worth it.

Choose the Right Filing Status

Can you go to jail for filing single when married? The short answer is yes, for up to three years.

Further, you may suffer a penalty no greater than $250,000. It’s best instead to file separately from your spouse. Otherwise, you need to get divorced or obtain a legal separation.

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