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Tax Breaks for Couples Selling Their Home

The federal tax code includes a number of provisions that give married couples tax breaks that aren’t available to those who are unmarried or are married but file separate returns from their spouses. One tax break that can substantially reduce a married couple’s joint tax bill after selling their main home at a profit is the increased home-gain exclusion. However, eligibility criteria exist that require more than just filing a joint return you’re your spouse.

Maximum Home Gain Exclusion

In order to exclude up to $500,000 of capital gain on the sale of your home, the IRS must receive a joint tax return that covers the tax year in which you sold the home. It’s probably no surprise, but the IRS requires that you be legally married on December 31. In other words, you can get married on New Year’s Eve and file a joint return for the entire year.

When married couples sell their main home at a substantial profit, they can exclude up to $500,000 of it from the capital gains tax, whereas single filers can only exclude a maximum of $250,000. Only one principal residence is eligible for the exclusion, which means gain on the sale of vacation, rental and other investment homes don’t qualify.

Ownership & Use Tests

The first of two tests the IRS imposes is the use test, which requires that both spouses used the home for at least two years during the most recent five-year period ending on the date the home is sold. It isn’t necessary for the two years to be consecutive. You are still eligible even if you move many times during the five years. However, you and your spouse must separately satisfy the use test. For example, if you live in one home all five years and get married one year before the sale of your home, it’s not possible for your spouse to meet the use test requirement unless the two of you lived together before getting married. But keep in mind, you can still exclude up to $250,000 of the capital gain, which for most taxpayers, is probably more than enough to wipe out the entire tax bill.

The second test requires that at least one spouse have legal ownership of the home for two of the five years. However, if your spouse excludes the capital gain on a different home with two years of the second home’s sale, the maximum gain you can exclude on your home is $250,000.

Reference: IRS Publication 523-Selling Your Home