Can You Go to Jail for Filing Single When Married?

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Marriage is not only a union of hearts but also a union of income. However, a union of income also means sharing liabilities, obligations, and taxes. 

For some, marriage is no longer a life of bliss and love but a numbers-crunching game played over a tax return form. This scenario should not be the case. Hopefully, this write-up will help you resolve questions about marriages and taxes. 

Can you go to jail for filing single while married? Can couples file their tax returns when they are legally separated? What is the difference between filing married and filing single for tax purposes, and what are the penalties for the wrong status filing?

This article will dive into the topic of taxation and the filing of tax returns for single individuals and couples. You’ll have insight into why some people mislabel their filing status from married to single. It will also discuss if you can go to jail for filing as single even when you’re married.

You’ll understand the difference between filing single and filing married for tax purposes. You’ll also know what happens to taxes when married couples become legally separated.

You’ll also learn the consequences of using wrong information in your tax returns and possible fines and jail time for such an offense.

Purposely and willfully providing wrong information on one’s tax return form is a felony. It is a severe criminal offense that can lead to fines and imprisonment. Once proven guilty, your loved one may be imprisoned for three to five years if found guilty of false statements and tax evasion.

In cases where your loved one ends up behind bars due to tax-related offenses, you’ll need a handy website that will provide information about the facilities where your loved one may be incarcerated. is an online database of more than 7,000 prisons and jails in Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, and other cities in the U.S. (United States). You can get the information you need about a particular prison or jail, like visiting hours, the inmate population, and how and what you can send to your loved one behind bars.

Can You File Single if You’re Married?

The short answer is no, but you can file single even if you’ve been married if you’re a widow or widower. Otherwise, filing single despite being married is not allowed. 

Also, if you get married before the end of a tax year (December 31), the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) considers you married for the entire year. You can’t file single for the tax year you’re married.

What Will Happen if You File As Single if You’re Married?

Mistakes or even incorrect filing don’t usually result in jail time. However, it is serious when you purposely and willingly give incorrect information, like an erroneous marital status, to take advantage of tax benefits. 

The IRS can investigate this matter, and you will face hefty penalties and corresponding jail time if you’re found guilty. 

Would the Filer Be Imprisoned for Making a False Statement?

The IRS doesn’t take false statements lightly, especially if you’ve willingly provided false statements on your tax return to exploit tax breaks or exemptions. A person guilty of this practice can face fraud and false statement charges.

Introduction to 26 U.S. Code § 7206 (Fraud and False Statements)

Anyone can face perjury if they willfully provide false information in a tax return form despite being fully aware of it not being true. Aside from the filer, anyone who aids and assists in giving false statements risks facing perjury charges.

It’s Really Black and White

The IRS isn’t vague in its request to indicate the filing status. In fact, the fine print above the line where you sign your individual income tax return form (1040), stating the penalties of perjury, is printed in black and white. 

Violating 26 USC 7206 (fraud and false statements) has a maximum fine of $100,000 ($500,000 for corporations), incarceration of not more than three years, or fines and prison time.  

What Does It Mean To Be “Married” for Tax Purposes?

According to tax laws, marriage is the legal union between two individuals. Because they’re legally bound together in matrimony, they have the choice to file their tax returns jointly and take advantage of combined deductions. 

Defining “Married” for Tax Purposes

For tax purposes, here’s how the IRS meticulously defines marriage: 

  • If you’re married before December 31 of a tax year, you’re considered married for that entire year. 
  • You’re considered married if you’re presenting together as a married couple in a state that recognizes common-law marriage.

Common law marriage is when a couple presents as married without getting a marriage license. 

What Does the Single Status Mean for Taxes?

The term “single” is more complex than it seems when it concerns taxes. According to tax law, a person is considered single if they are:

  • Unmarried
  • Legally separated due to divorce
  • Not qualified for another filing status

The Standard Deduction for Single Tax Filers

A standard deduction refers to a percentage of a taxpayer’s income that is not taxed to reduce one’s tax bill. The standard deduction would take effect if you didn’t itemize your deductions when you filled out your 1040 tax return form. 

The IRS standard deduction for single filers for 2022 is $12,950. For 2023, the stand deduction increased to $13,850.

What Happens if You Lie About Being Married on Your Taxes?

The repercussions for lying on a tax return are less severe than outright perjury. However, you can still be fined up to $100,000. In more severe cases, a person can get imprisoned for up to three years. 

Can You File Single if You Are Separated?

Suppose the final decision for a legal separation is obtained after December 31 of a tax year. In that case, you can choose “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately.” You’re considered married for that entire tax year.

However, when you get legally separated before the end of a tax year, you’ll be considered not married for that tax year. Hence, you can file single on your tax return.

How Does Legal Separation Work?

Legal separation is different from annulment or divorce. It’s an agreement where a married couple lives apart but remains legally married. Usually, the agreement is mutually accepted under an order of a judge

Common reasons for opting for legal separation rather than outright divorce are religious reasons and the maintenance of health and life insurance benefits. 

Annulment is the invalidation of a marriage because of reasons that made the marriage invalid from the start. 

On the other hand, divorce is the ending or dissolving of a marriage. Unlike divorce, legal separation can be reversed. 

How Long Do You Have To Be Separated To File Taxes Separately?

You can file single when you get a judge’s order confirming your legal separation before December 31 of a tax year. If not, the filing statuses you can choose are “married filing separately” or “married filing jointly.” 

However, if you are legally separated and your partner isn’t present in your household during the last six months, you can file as head of household. A head-of-the-household filing status has a broader tax bracket and higher standard deduction than other filing statuses.

Do They Take Out More Taxes if You Claim That You Are Single?

In most cases, you get a lower tax bill and higher tax deductions when filing married jointly. However, in cases where one party has a big difference in income or has more itemized deductions than the other, filing separate returns can be a better option. The benefits are the same with a single filer.

Is It Better To File Single or Married?

The benefits of both single and married filing statuses depend on the factors presently affecting your earned income when filing for a particular tax year. 

The Internal Revenue Service announced an increase in standard deductions for the 2023 tax year. The standard deductions for 2023 are the following:

  • Single: $13,850
  • Married filing separately: $13,850
  • Married filing jointly: $27,700
  • Head of household: $20,800

Remember that standard deductions can be used if you don’t itemize your deductions on your form. 

Filing Single vs. Married

Generally, couples jointly filing enjoy more considerable tax benefits than married filing separate returns or filing single. However, there are instances where filing separately has more benefits compared to filing jointly, like the following:

  • During a tax year, when a spouse or husband has higher out-of-the-pocket expenses, like medical expenses
  • When a spouse has more items that can be deducted when filing a tax return

Filing Single vs. Head of Household

Head-of-household filers (HOH) have a lower taxable income than single filers. The standard deduction for an HOH is almost 50% higher than the deduction for single filers. Aside from this, HOH has a broader tax bracket that makes people using this filing status eligible to have more of their income fall into a lower tax bracket. 

What Are the Disadvantages of Using the Married Filing Separately Status?

Though filing jointly is often seen as the better choice whenever applicable, there are cases where filing separately is more practical. However, choosing to file separately can be disadvantageous if done incorrectly. Here are some situations where using the “married filing separately” status can be disadvantageous.

Don’t Leave Money on the Table

A couple may leave money on the table when filing separately rather than jointly if one party has many deductible items in their tax returns. Remember that if you file separately, you should choose the same type of deductions:  itemized or standard. 

Suppose your spouse has deductible items that amount to $20,000 while you have considerably less on your deductible list. In that case, you can only claim the deductible items you’ll declare, even if the standard deduction may be higher. 

The “Marriage Penalty Tax” Since 2018

Married couples with similar incomes may face an increased tax burden when filing taxes jointly compared to singles filing their tax returns. This burden is called the marriage penalty tax. 

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) of 2018 primarily resolved the “marriage penalty tax” by almost doubling the tax bracket for joint filers compared to single or separate filers. The perceived penalty is due to differences in state and federal tax brackets that don’t always double income rates for jointly filing married couples.

When Does It Make Sense To Be Married Filing Separately, Despite Disadvantages?

Despite the benefits of joint filing, there are scenarios where filing separately may be more sensical or practical. Here are reasons to choose separate filing:

  • Divorce or legal separation: You can file separate tax returns if you don’t want to share the benefits of joint filing with a divorced or separated partner 
  • Tax liabilities of a partner: if you suspect your partner has tax liabilities, like fraud or perjury, separate filing is sensical
  • Different pay or deduction scales: filing separate returns is the better choice than getting short-handed on claiming tax deductions because of differences in itemized deductions and pay scales

What if My W-4 Says Single, but I’m Married?

If you’re married and the status on your W-4 says “Single,” your employer withholds your taxes at the higher single rate compared to the married rate. 

The W-4 and filing status on a tax return are not the same. The W-4 form (employee’s withholding certificate) informs the employer of how much federal income tax will be withheld from your pay. 

What Happens if I Put Single When Married on My W-4?

The single status in your W-4 is used for individuals who want to file as “single” and “married but filing separately.” Though you can file single while married to enjoy a single withholding, it might not benefit you. If in doubt, it’s best to seek legal advice from financial experts.

Who Benefits From Using the “Married Filing Separately” Status?

A joint filing generally results in more refunds and lower tax bills. Still, there are cases where filing separately is more practical. An example is when your spouse has many deductible items, like medication expenses. It would be more practical to file separately to take advantage of the miscellaneous items deducted. 

What’s the Difference in Withholding Between the “Married” and “Single” Status?

The main difference between married and single withholding is how much your take-home pay is after the withholding tax is deducted. The tax you pay depends on the following factors:

  1. Taxable income: the portion of your salary that can be taxed.
  2. Filing status: your marital status. Each status will directly affect your taxable income.
  3. Adjustments: items that you subtract from your income source, including moving expenses, student loan interest payments, and individual retirement account (IRA) contributions.
  4. Exemptions: examples include personal exemptions, your spouse’s exemptions, and even dependency exemptions. 
  5. Tax deductions: these items can be deducted from your tax bill. Examples include mortgages and charitable contributions.
  6. Tax credits: the amount of money that you can subtract from the income tax you owe. These credits apply to the final tax bill, not your taxable income. Tax credits come from government incentives, like using energy-efficient equipment and getting secondary education. 

Newlyweds May End Up Facing a ‘Marriage Tax Penalty.’ And Here’s When It Hits

Despite the “marriage tax penalty,” the implementation of the TCJA in 2018 had a significant impact on married couples. The TCJA doubled the standard deduction for married couples and heads of households.

The marginal rates for single and married couples are the following:

Tax rate Single Head of household Married filing jointly or qualifying widow Married filing separately
10% $0 to $10,275 $0 to $14,650 $0 to $20,550 $0 to $10,275
12% $10,276 to $41,775 $14,651 to $55,900 $20,551 to $83,550 $10,276 to $41,775
22% $41,776 to $89,075 $55,901 to $89,050 $83,551 to $178,150 $41,776 to $89,075
24% $89,076 to $170,050 $89,051 to $170,050 $178,151 to $340,100 $89,076 to $170,050
32% $170,051 to $215,950 $170,051 to $215,950 $340,101 to $431,900 $170,051 to $215,950
35% $215,951 to $539,900 $215,951 to $539,900 $431,901 to $647,850 $215,951 to $323,925
37% $539,901 or more $539,901 or more $647,851 or more $323,926 or more

Higher-Income Couples

The marriage tax penalty stems from the tax rate per increment. Let’s say you calculate the increments and compare them between single and married filing jointly. You’ll find out that married couples pay much higher taxes as their income increases. 

However, with the updated tax rates from 2022 to 2023, the tax rates for married couples filing jointly are now double that of a single filer. 


Let’s say the rate for “Single” and “Married filing jointly” is 37%. Now let’s take a look at the following details:

  • Two single earners with a taxable income of $500,000
  • Married earners filing joint tax returns with a combined taxable income of $1,000,000

a. Single taxable income: $500,000 (0.37) = $185,000 (two single filers add up to $370,000)
b. Married filing jointly taxable income: $1,000,000 (0.37) = $370,000

As you can see, the marginal tax rate for married filing jointly is exactly double that of single-person filers’. 

Lower Earners

Even lower earners can feel the effects of the marriage penalty tax, especially when two individuals with equal incomes marry.

State Taxes

Whether the marriage penalty is built into the bracket structure depends on the state. 

To avoid credit loss, couples can file separately in states that failed to double the bracket widths. Other states have begun to adopt double-bracket systems to limit the effects of the “marriage penalty.” 

Under the new bracket system, a married couple’s marginal tax rate is double that of a single filer. This new system eliminates marriage penalties. 

Beware Social Security Income

If you’re receiving Social Security (SS) income and got married, you may experience a marriage penalty. Senior married couples with modest income sources while receiving Social Security benefits are obligated to pay taxes for their benefits if their base amount is more than $32,000. 

The base amount is the combined adjusted gross income of the couple as reported on their filed tax return. Added to this amount is the interest from investments eligible for tax exemptions and 50% of the couple’s combined SS benefits. Hence, a couple receiving SS benefits may be paying more taxes if their filing status is “Married filing jointly.” 

Married People Can’t File Their Income Taxes Single, but You Do Have Some Options

There are instances where you don’t want to file your taxes jointly. Willfully filing incorrect information can result in problems with the IRS. However, can you file your income taxes as a single filer instead of using the married filing separately status?

The Answer

You can’t file single if you’re legally married. You can choose the “Married filing separately” status or the “Married filing jointly” one. You can only file single if you are unmarried, legally separated, divorced, or a widow or widower.

What We Found

Lying on your tax returns can lead to problems with the IRS. It can result in fines and, in severe cases, incarceration. 

Need Help?

It’s always best to seek help from personal finance professionals who will help you understand the U.S. tax code and your tax status. It’s best to find taxation experts, like a certified public accountant (CPA).  


1. Is it legal to file single when married?

You can choose to file using the “married filing separately” status to get the marginal tax rate for singles. Still, you can’t indicate “single” in your filing status if you are legally married. 

2. Does the IRS know if I am married?

The IRS doesn’t have a database for all marriage proceedings in the United States. So, it doesn’t have the means to monitor every single U.S. citizen and when and where they’ll get married.

3. Can the IRS find out if you are married?

The IRS can determine if you’re married if you state it on your tax return. However, if you’re hiding that you’ve tied the knot, the IRS may still find out once they’ve done an audit on your account. Abnormal tax returns can trigger tax audits. 

4. Is it illegal to file separately if you’re married?

No, it’s not illegal to file separate returns if you’re married. One of the filing statuses you can choose is “Married filing separately.” 

5. What is the penalty for filing as the head of household while married?

As long as you’re married, there’s no penalty for filing as head of household. 

6. What are the IRS rules for married filing separately?

When you’re married before December 31 of a tax year, you can choose the status of “Married filing separately for that entire tax year.” Couples can use this status if they disagree on filing jointly for various reasons. 

7. Can you claim that you are single but file jointly?

No. Only unmarried individuals can use the filing status “Single.” You can file jointly when you’re married. 

8. How can a marriage tax penalty be avoided?

The Jobs Act of 2018 has resolved most issues concerning the marriage tax penalty. However, when there are many deductibles, like medical expenses, filing separate returns may be an option to prevent the marriage tax penalty. 

9. What happens if you file the wrong filing status?

You can use form 1040-X to amend the wrong information or to add lacking details to change your tax return. You need to submit this form, which will be your new tax return file, to the IRS. 

10. Does the IRS check the head of the household?

The IRS provides criteria for choosing the filing status “head of the household.” The agency requires that you should be unmarried or considered unmarried with a qualified dependent, like an elderly parent or a child. 

11. Can I file single if I’ve gotten married in less than six months?

No, the IRS states that your marital status at the end of the year is your marital status for that entire tax year.

12. Can you go to jail over taxes?

You can go to jail when you are sentenced for committing tax violations punishable by incarceration, like tax evasion and fraud. 

13. Can the IRS put me in jail?

The IRS can file charges for tax violations. Still, the court will determine if a person will be fined or incarcerated.

14. Can you go to jail for lying to the IRS?

Yes, willfully committing tax fraud and tax evasion are federal crimes and can result in hefty fines and significant prison time. 

15. Do you have to report the marriage to the IRS?

The tax return forms require that you sign them with full knowledge that everything you’ve written on the form is accurate and subject to a penalty of perjury. Included in the information you need to provide is your filing status. 

16. What is the IRS innocent spouse rule?

When someone is unaware of their partner’s improperly filing or omitting information on the tax return, they can file an innocent spouse rule. The spouse’s innocence is considered, and they are relieved of responsibility for their partner’s actions. 


1. 26 U.S. Code § 7206 – Fraud and false statements
2. Single filer
3. Standard Deduction in Taxes and How It’s Calculated
4. Standard deduction
5. Legal separation

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