How to claim a tax refund retroactively


Same-sex couples now have the chance to claim tax benefits denied them under DOMA; not just for future returns, but retroactively, with an amended return.

After the IRS announced its decision to recognize same-sex couples, filing status for many changed, from two Individuals to a Married Couple Filing Jointly (or, in some cases, Filing Separately).

This isn’t always a good thing; you may see a lower tax bill—what’s called a “marriage bonus”—or a “marriage penalty.” It depends on who earns what in your marriage and how much.

Marriage bonus or marriage penalty?

Couples are often hurt by the “marriage penalty,” which means, as a married couple, their effective tax rate is higher. Some even get bumped up to a higher tax bracket. Generally, couples in which both members earn a similar level of income will be taxed at a higher rate. On the other hand, couples that subsist primarily on one member’s income will receive a “marriage bonus”.

Before you file an amended return, then, you should calculate where exactly you fall, either on your own or with the help of a financial advisor. You don’t want to file an amended return only to owe more money to the IRS.

How to file an amended return

From here on out, couples that were married in a state that recognizes marriage equality (they don’t necessarily have to live there) are required to file jointly or married filing separately for federal taxes. If they so choose, they may also file amended returns for 2010, 2011 and 2012. This is entirely optional.

If you and your spouse will benefit from filing amended returns, the process is fairly simple. First, choose either your spouse’s federal tax return to amend or yours—you don’t need to submit both. Then, fill out Form 1040-X, which shows the difference between your original return and the new, corrected return. On the 1040-X, select your new filing status as a married couple and update your income and deductions accordingly.

Once complete, mail the amended return to the IRS. It usually takes 8 to 12 weeks to process amended returns, but it may take longer during busy periods. If you’re not comfortable filling out the 1040-X form yourself, tax consultants and online services like TurboTax will be more than happy to help.

Mike Anderson is an analyst for NerdWallet, a financial-literacy company dedicated to helping consumers make better decisions with their wallet.

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