Filing a Deceased Person's Final Income Tax Return

It's important to know how to file a deceased person's Form 1040 or 1040-SR because unforunately, death doesn’t relieve one’s obligation to file a final federal income tax return.

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Benjamin Franklin coined the famous saying, “In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes.” But what about when death and taxes coincide, such as when someone dies during the year and has a tax filing obligation? 

When someone is deceased, the decedent's personal representative is generally required to file any final tax returns for the deceased person. This includes federal income tax returns that the decedent would have been required to file for the year of his or her death. A personal representative can be an executor, administrator, or anyone else who oversees the decedent’s property. 

Read further for more information on how to file a final federal income tax return for a deceased person.

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Filing a final Form 1040 or 1040-SR for a deceased spouse 

If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the entire year for federal income tax purposes, provided you didn’t remarry that year. So, for example, if your spouse died this year and you don’t remarry before Dec. 31, 2024, you can file a joint 2024 return next year. The return would show your spouse’s income before death, and would show your income for the entire year. 

  • You would mark “married filing jointly” for your filing status and include your spouse’s name and your name and address as normal in the name and address fields of Form 1040 or 1040-SR
  • If filing a paper return, write the word “deceased,” along with the decedent’s name, and date of death, at the top of the 1040 or 1040-SR.
  •  If you are using tax preparation software, the software will do this automatically for you once you mark that the spouse is deceased and enter the date of your spouse's death.

If there is a court-appointed personal representative, that representative must sign the return along with the surviving spouse. If there is no court-appointed representative, the surviving spouse would sign, and write “filing as surviving spouse” in the decedent’s signature box.

If you are filing a joint return that shows a refund due, there is nothing you need to do to receive the refund, other than filing the tax return.

If you remarry before the end of 2024, you file a joint return with your new spouse, and your deceased spouse’s filing status will be married filing separately.

Here's a tip. The qualifying widow or widower filing status lets surviving spouses with dependents use the income tax brackets and standard deductions for joint filers for two years after a spouse’s death. 

For example, if your spouse died this year and you have two minor children, you can file a joint 2024 return. Then for your 2025 and 2026 returns, you can file as a qualifying widow or widower, provided you are still unmarried at the end of 2025 and 2026 and claim dependent children for these years. 

Filing a final Form 1040 or 1040-SR for an unmarried decedent 

The decedent’s final federal income tax return would report his or her income and expenses before death. If filing a paper return for the decedent, write the word “deceased” and the decedent’s name and date of death at the top of the 1040 or 1040-SR. If you’re using tax preparation software, the software will do this automatically for you once you mark that the filer is deceased and enter the date of death. 

You would also mark the decedent’s filing status as single or head-of-household, depending on the situation. You write the decedent’s name on the name line of the 1040 or 1040-SR and the personal representative’s name and address in the remaining name and address field.

If there is a court-appointed or court-certified personal representative, that representative should sign the return. If not, and there is no surviving spouse, then whoever is in charge of the decedent’s property signs the return as the personal representative.

If a refund is due to the decedent, you may have to complete and attach Form 1310 to the final 1040 or 1040-SR. This rule does not apply to surviving spouses who file a joint return with the decedent. Nor does it apply to court-appointed or court-certified personal representatives, who are instead required to attach to the return a copy of the court document showing the appointment. However, all other filers requesting the decedent’s tax refund must attach Form 1310.

Here is another tip. The IRS has an interactive tax assistant on its website to help you file a deceased person’s federal income tax return. The online tool, (i.e., "How do I file a deceased person's tax return), asks several questions, including the marital status of the decedent, whether the decedent is owed a refund, and whether a court-appointed representative, or a personal representative is designated by the will.

Failing to file a decedent's final return: What happens if you don't file a deceased person's taxes?

The consequences for not filing a decedent's final federal income tax return depend on whether the decedent owes money to the IRS or is due a refund for the year

  • If the decedent is required to file a return for the year and owes money with the final return, then the IRS will eventually send a notice to the decedent's last-known address about the requirement to file a return.
  • If the taxes aren't paid, then the IRS could eventually go after the executor, or maybe even the decedent's heirs to the extent the heirs received the decedent's property upon death, for the unpaid taxes.
  • If the decedent is owed a refund, and no final income tax return is ever filed, then the decedent's heirs will not get the refund payment.

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Joy Taylor
Editor, The Kiplinger Tax Letter

Joy is an experienced CPA and tax attorney with an L.L.M. in Taxation from New York University School of Law. After many years working for big law and accounting firms, Joy saw the light and now puts her education, legal experience and in-depth knowledge of federal tax law to use writing for Kiplinger. She writes and edits The Kiplinger Tax Letter and contributes federal tax and retirement stories to and Kiplinger’s Retirement Report. Her articles have been picked up by the Washington Post and other media outlets. Joy has also appeared as a tax expert in newspapers, on television and on radio discussing federal tax developments.