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How should you file a deceased person’s final income tax returns?

On Behalf of | Jan 19, 2024 | Probate and Estate Administration

The Benjamin Franklin quote that “nothing is certain except death and taxes” may be going through your head as you realize that, as the executor of the estate of a loved one or friend who passed away last year, you’re required to file their final income tax returns. Their returns for last year are due on Tax Day with everyone else’s.

You may be able to get an extension from the IRS and the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) if you need some extra time to gather documentation. It’s important to seek that as soon as possible. If the person who passed away was your spouse, you can simply file a joint return with the notation “Filing as surviving spouse” on the signature line. It’s wise to have a tax preparer or other tax professional help you, even if you haven’t used one before, since these are complex circumstances.

Gathering documents is a critical part of the job

If you’re the estate’s executor, but not the surviving spouse, the process of filing someone else’s income tax returns can be challenging. That’s especially true if it’s not easy to locate previous years’ returns or other necessary documents like 1099s and W-2s.

If the decedent had a tax preparer, your job will be easier, as they should have copies of previous years’ documents. However, you’ll still need to locate documentation of all types of income, including taxable benefits, for last year. You’ll also want to include deductible expenses like medical bills. You’ll need to provide a copy of the death certificate to get some of this documentation sent to you. You’ll also need to file IRS Form 56 to show that you have the right to file the decedent’s income tax returns.

It’s important to make sure that the person who passed away was filing their income tax returns in previous years. If they suffered through a prolonged illness or disability and didn’t have anyone with power of attorney (POA) over their finances, this may have been neglected in recent years.

Remember that filing a decedent’s income taxes has nothing to do with any estate tax responsibilities, if any are due. Executors are typically responsible for both. It’s a lot of responsibility and it can feel overwhelming. This has been just a brief overview of the issue, after all. However, with solid professional tax as well as legal guidance, you can help ensure that you’re handling everything correctly.