Married couples are allowed up to $500,000 ($250,000 each) in profits, tax free from the sale of their principal residence, as long as they have owned and occupied the residence as a principal residence for at least two of the five years before the sale. Formerly, a spouse who moved out as a result of divorce lost his or her $250,000 deduction because it was no longer the principal residence. However, thanks to a change in the tax law, an ex-spouse can now retain that exclusion.
The law contains a specific provision relating to property used by the spouse of a former spouse pursuant to a divorce decree (26 U.S.C. § 121 (d)(3B)). This section states that “an individual shall be treated as using property as such individual’s principal residence during any period of ownership while such individual’s spouse or former spouse is granted use of the property under a divorce or separation instrument.”
This addresses the case of where an individual has retained ownership in the house but where the former spouse occupies the house for a period of more than 3 years from the time the owner (the non-occupying individual) has vacated the home. This allows the non-occupying individual to exclude up to $250,000 of gain when the house is sold, even though he or she did not actually occupy the home for two of the last five years before the sale.
To qualify, the spouse who moved out must remain an owner and the divorce or separation agreement must grant that spouse the use of the home. If a spouse who is the sole owner remarries, the new spouse must live in the house for two years to qualify for the full $500,000 exclusion.