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Filing Tax Returns for the Deceased

Posted on Thursday, August 31, 2023
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by AMAC, D.J. Wilson
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"File Tax Return!" written on sticky note stuck on a calendar

Responsibilities exist

Losing a spouse or other family member or someone we are close to is never easy. Not only is the emotional aspect weighty, but there are responsibilities that come along with managing the decedent’s affairs. Organization and follow through are key elements when filing tax returns for the deceased. Together, they can help the process go smoothly.

Important to know

For those with taxable income prior to death, a final tax return must be filed. This is typically done by the spouse with whom they’ve previously filed jointly, or by a legally appointed representative of the deceased. In the case of a surviving spouse, they may continue to file jointly for two additional years if there are dependents and they have not remarried.

What the IRS requires

In most cases, the person responsible for filing the return, such as a surviving spouse, is likely named on the will. Whoever is filing the final return must report all income and financial information up to the time of the deceased person’s earthly departure. If there is no spouse, many times a child, trustee, close family member, or business partner is appointed as representative. Click here to learn more about filing tax returns for a deceased parent.

Is official notification of death required by the IRS?

Typically, the IRS generally does not require formal notification of death to accompany the return. However, on the final return, it must be clearly noted DECEASED, indicating that said person has died. The date of death must also be noted. Electronic returns will automatically state this information when properly programmed. In some rare instances, a formal death certificate may be required.

Decisions must be made

A major decision one faces is whether to prepare the final return oneself or use a tax professional. The tax filer is ultimately responsible for the accuracy of the tax return; thus, it is imperative that the final return is properly prepared. For complicated tax situations, or in the case where one is unfamiliar with taxes and/or does not feel comfortable preparing the return, the guidance of a tax professional is wise.

Why hire a CPA?

A Certified Public Accountant, or CPA, is an expert who is licensed to provide accounting services to the public. They are knowledgeable in tax preparation, internal auditing, and perform other valuable tax and financial services. Note that a CPA is an accountant, but not all accountants are CPAs. CPA is a special professional designation earned by qualified accountants. They must adhere to rules of ethics.

What type of information is needed to prepare a return?

Regardless of whether a tax return is done by an executor or by a professional accountant, the tax filer must gather information regarding the decedent’s tax situation to prepare a final return. The following information is generally useful:

  • A death certificate. Some financial institutions may require a copy before releasing information. CPAs may request a copy of the death certificate to confirm that someone is indeed deceased. In some rare instances, it may also be needed for the final return.
  • Proof as court appointed representative of the estate or deceased. This clarifies who is responsible for filing a tax return on behalf of the deceased.
  • Copies of previous tax returns. If the representative of the deceased does not have copies of the most recent tax returns, there are ways to obtain them. One may file a power of attorney to enable their CPA to obtain copies of previous returns. Alternatively, one may submit Form 4506-T to the IRS to request a transcript of the previous tax return. One must likely demonstrate representative or executor status.
  • A tax organizer. This is a document given to clients by their tax preparer to help individuals collect, organize, and submit information needed to prepare an accurate return. This helps to ensure that vital information is not overlooked. It also helps to confirm that all tax deductions and credits are noted. Paperwork that is generally important to collect and provide to your CPA may include 1099s, mortgage information, bank statements, investment statements, and more.
  • A copy of the will. This may outline other important financial information that may be useful for tax return preparation.

An important job

Filing tax returns for the deceased is a task not to be taken lightly. When a taxpayer passes away, a final return is still expected. This responsibility generally falls onto the surviving spouse or appointed representative. If the responsible party fails to file taxes for a deceased person, the IRS may take legal action, for example, by placing a federal lien against the Estate.

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