Filing a Deceased Person's Income Tax Return

The executor must file a simple IRS Form 1040, just as the deceased person would have done.

It’s the executor’s job to file the deceased person’s state and federal final income tax returns for the year of death. If a joint return is filed, the surviving spouse shares this responsibility. For more information, see IRS Publication 559, Survivors, Executors, and Administrators.

Is a Return Required?

If the deceased person didn’t receive much income in the last year—less than about $20,000 for someone who was married filing jointly—you don’t have to file income tax returns. You can get the current minimum amounts (they change each year) from the IRS website (www.irs.gov) and your state’s taxing authority.

Gross income usually includes money, goods, and property the deceased person received from, for example, a job, pension, investments, disability payments, and IRAs and retirement plans (except Roth IRAs). For people with larger incomes, a portion of Social Security may also be taxable. Gross income also includes self-employment income.

Even if a return isn’t required, file one anyway if a refund is coming. A refund may be due if tax was withheld from the deceased person’s salary, pension, or annuity.

Taxation of Social Security Benefits

Whether or not Social Security benefits are taxable depends on the recipient’s total income and marital status. Generally, if Social Security benefits were the deceased person’s only income, they are not taxable. If the deceased person received other income as well, use the worksheet in the Form 1040 instruction book to find out how much, if any, of the Social Security income is taxable.

For more information, see IRS Publication 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits.

(Surviving spouses should know that they may be able to continue collecting Social Security benefits). 

Special Rules for Surviving Spouses

Some special rules apply to surviving spouses.

Filing a joint return. A surviving spouse may file a joint tax return for the year of the deceased spouse’s death. If the spouse remarries during that year, however, file a “married filing separately” return for the deceased taxpayer.

Tax benefits. A surviving spouse who has a dependent child may get an income tax break for two tax years after the death. A surviving spouse who qualifies for a special filing status, called “qualifying widow(er),” can pay the tax rate that applies to married couples. The result may be a smaller tax bill. To be eligible, you must have:

  1. been entitled to file a joint return with your spouse for the year of death (whether or not you actually did)
  2. not remarried before the end of the current tax year
  3. had a child, stepchild, or foster child who qualified as your dependent for the tax year, and
  4. provided more than half the cost of maintaining your home, which is the child’s principal residence.

What Forms to Use

A federal income tax return for a deceased person is filed on the familiar Form 1040.

If you’re the executor, sign the form yourself, in your capacity as estate representative. If you’re the surviving spouse and file a joint return, sign it yourself, adding after your signature the words “filing as surviving spouse.” If you’re not the executor, and one is appointed before the return is due, have him or her sign too.

If there is no surviving spouse and no executor has been appointed by the court, whoever has taken charge of the deceased person’s property signs the return as “personal representative.”

When to File the Income Tax Return

The income tax return for the year in which the person died is called the final tax return, and it’s due when it would have been due if the deceased person were still alive—for most people, on April 15 of the year after the year of death.

If the deceased person hadn’t yet filed a tax return for the prior year, you’ll have to file that tax return as well. For example, if someone dies in March, before filing a tax return for the previous calendar year, two returns must be filed: one for the previous calendar year, and one for the year of death.

Claiming a Refund

If you’re the surviving spouse filing a joint return, there’s no extra paperwork involved in claiming a refund. Anyone else filing a return on behalf of a deceased person must file additional documents.

  • If you’re the court-appointed executor, attach a copy of the court document that authorizes you to act. This may be called your “Letters Testamentary,” or something similar, depending on the state.
  • If a court hasn’t appointed you to represent the estate, file IRS Form 1310, Statement of Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer, with the return.

Special Rules for Final Tax Returns

In general, the same rules about income, deductions, and credits apply to a return for a deceased person as apply to a living taxpayer. Here are some tips:

  • The personal exemption may be claimed in full unless someone else claimed the deceased person as a dependent.
  • The full standard deduction may be claimed if deductions are not itemized.
  • The full credit for the elderly or the disabled may be taken if the deceased person was 65 or older or had retired by the end of the tax year on permanent and total disability.
  • Qualifying medical expenses may be claimed as a deduction either on the final income tax return or, if a federal estate tax return is filed, on that return. (If you’re filing an estate tax return, see a tax professional for advice.)

If the deceased person was self-employed, you’ll probably need to pay federal self-employment tax (reported on Schedule SE of Form 1040) in addition to regular income tax.

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