10 Tax Tips for the Recently Divorced

Many of the biggest tax-time questions facing people who have recently divorced boil down to: Who has custody of the kids?
Many of the biggest tax-time questions facing people who have recently divorced boil down to: Who has custody of the kids?

If you've combined your finances with a spouse for years, it might come as a shock to have to shoulder the responsibility of filing your taxes solo again after a divorce. But don't panic: While there is some information that will make filing as a divorced person a bit easier, you're not in for any big surprises. As with most tax topics, a little bit of knowledge will go a long way to ensuring you file accurately -- and with the biggest tax advantage you can get.

10: Filing Status

One of the first decisions you have to make when filing your taxes as a newly divorced person is not entirely common sense. The gist is pretty simple: If you're divorced (or legally separated) by Dec. 31 at midnight, you should go ahead and file your taxes separately. (In other words, just because you were married most of the year doesn't mean you have to file together.) If you're doing your taxes in March and your divorce was only final in January? You were married for the entire year's tax return, and that means you can file jointly.

Obviously, there are some drawbacks to this. For instance: If you're divorced, there's a strong possibility that the last thing you want to do is sit down with your ex and discuss your finances and the tax implications of them ad nauseam. If so, you can take the "Married Filing Separately" option the IRS offers. Note that you won't get all the tax breaks associated with marriage, but it might be a good idea if one of you owes a lot of back taxes. (Or if you just can't handle a tax preparation session with your ex.)

9: Child Support

We might as well get one of the biggies out of the way. There's little that's more contentious than child custody and support during divorce proceedings, and the consequences of some of those decisions bleed into tax time. Here's what you need to know about child support so you don't run afoul of Uncle Sam.

First off, child support payments are not deductible. That means that if you're the one giving monthly checks, you're not going to write off the cost on your tax return. If you're the one receiving child support, it is not considered income. That's a real boon to the parent who gets the payments, because it's basically money that can't be taxed.

Make sure you understand the exact wording and implications of your divorce agreement; some alimony payments (which have different rules, as we'll discuss later) are designed to end around a child's 18th or 21st birthday. If you're not careful, the IRS might consider those payments child support, too.

8: Dependency Exemptions

If there's anything that you should definitely remember not to do the tax year following your divorce, it's attempt for both parents to claim children as dependents. In fact, that's something you shouldn't do for any year after your divorce. Child and dependency exemptions provide a seriously enticing tax break, and the IRS knows it: Multiple people are not allowed to claim the same person, period.

Your divorce agreement might actually specify which parent gets to claim the children as dependents; in that case, there's not a lot of debate. Just go with whatever was decided. (But be aware you'll still have to fill out a form declaring it.) But if it wasn't made clear, the rule of thumb is that the custodial parent (the parent who has the kid for most of the year) gets to claim the exemption. However, the noncustodial parent can take the exemption if the custodial parent waives the right and fills out a specific form (Form 8332) declaring it. You can use the form to declare nonconsecutive years you're waiving the exemption if you and your ex want to trade off taking it.

7: File First

If your divorce wasn't of the Gwyneth/guy from Coldplay variety and was more acrimonious than conscientious, you might consider the next tip. It's not a particularly civilized way to go about resolving a dispute, but it may be an emergency option if you're the custodial parent and your spouse is trying to claim the kids as dependents anyway. You can save yourself from having to convince the IRS that you're the one in the right by filing your taxes before your ex-spouse does.

It sounds too good to be true, but it does make sense. If you're the first to file and claim your child as a dependent, the onus of responsibility is then on your former spouse to explain his or her copycat claim. In other words, you already claimed the kid; your ex now has to explain to the IRS why he or she did too.

6: Noncustodial Parent Itemized Deductions

There's not much doubt that noncustodial parents don't get a lot of breaks when it comes to taxes. In general, they're the ones paying child support (which isn't deductible), and they have a harder time claiming the child as a dependent. But don't throw in the tax towel and drown yourself in IRS forms just yet. There are some ways that the noncustodial parent can find some tax relief.

First up: itemized deductions. If you choose not to take the standard deduction the year you file, you can actually write off some of your child's expenses, whether or not you're claiming him or her as a dependent. One of the big ones is medical expenses; if you're paying for some of your kid's medical costs or treatment, you can itemize them. That includes health savings account distributions too [source: Bischoff]. You do have to make sure your kid is considered a qualifying child, however: That means you must be able to claim that the child is with one or both parents half the year, that half the child's support is provided by one or both parents and that you as parents are divorced or separated.