Two State Tax Returns: Live in One State, Work in Another

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I get a lot of questions from people about working in one state and living in another. That’s pretty common here in Saint Louis where we have lots of folks living in Illinois that come over the river to work here and vice versa. Today I’m going to talk about doing your tax return when you have two states to deal with.

First, the technical words you need to know:

The state you live in is called your resident state. There will probably be a check box or something like that in your computer program. If you live in Illinois, then your resident state is Illinois.

The state you work in (but don’t live in) is called the non-resident state. In this example, Missouri is the non-resident state.

Tax liability: This is not your refund or the amount of money that was withheld on your W2. Tax liability is a number computed when you prepare the state tax return. It will say “tax liability” on your state income tax form. This is the dollar amount the state says that you owe them for taxes before they take into account what you’ve already paid through your withholding or estimated payments.

That’s not so hard, right? Next, you need to make sure you do your tax returns in the right order:

Always do the federal return first. Make sure that it’s done and that it’s right before you start your state returns. If you finish, and then go back in to make changes to the federal, you’ll have to go back and double check everything on the state returns and that can be a pain in the back, so finish the federal first.

Next, do the non-resident state—that’s the state you work in. That one’s easiest. You only pay tax in that state for the wages you earn in that state. Usually, when preparing a non-resident state return, there will be a check box that says “non-resident” somewhere in your software. Be sure to check it. You’ll want to make note of your “tax liability” for the non-resident state. You’ll need that number for your resident state return.

After you’ve finished the non-resident state, then you can prepare your resident state return. You resident state is going to tax all of your income (including the wages you earned in the other state.) The resident state will include your wages, interest, dividends, stock trades, retirement income, and basically everything else that’s taxable.

Things to know about the resident state return:

Even though you pay tax on all of the income you earn to your resident state, you will get a credit for taxes paid to another state. For example: using our Illinois/Missouri return again—since you paid income tax to Missouri for the wages you earned while working there, Illinois will give you a credit for those taxes paid so you won’t end up having to pay twice for working in another state.

The form you need to complete will have different names depending on the state, but it will basically be called a Credit for Taxes Paid to Another State. Sometimes it will be listed as an NR Credit. Depending on which software you use, you might have to dig for it. Some software programs are really easy and it will just pop up automatically when it recognizes that you have multiple states.

Remember the tax liability number I told you to remember? Well that’s going to go on your NR Credit form. Some software is really good at automatically plugging it in for you. In some other programs, you’ll have to manually enter it. The important thing is that you know that number needs to be there and that you know to look for it.

I’m getting a really big refund from my resident state, can that be right? Most likely not. When you see an unusually large state refund, it’s always a good idea to take a closer look. Check to make sure that the income numbers match up to the federal return and that the Credit for Taxes paid to another state was computed properly. It’s rare to get a big refund to your resident state unless you’ve had some other income that had withholding. The credit for taxes paid to another state usually will almost never be more than what you would have paid for taxes in your own state.

I’m showing that I owe a whole lot of money to my home state, can that be right? Maybe yes, but maybe no. The first thing you want to check is that you’ve taken your credit for taxes paid to another state. That’s the most common problem when you owe a lot. Other factors could be working in a no-tax state while you’re living in a taxing state. For example, let’s say you live in Louisianna but work across the border in Texas. You won’t pay taxes in Texas so there’ll be no credit for taxes paid there. In a case like that, you’ll definitely owe. Also, you could have a big difference because the states have different tax rates. For example: Missouri’s tax rate used to be twice as much as Illinois. If you lived in Missouri and worked in Illinois (opposite of our example earlier), you’d still owe Missouri about as much again as what you paid Illinois. (Now the rates are much closer, but people who live in Missouri and work in Illinois will still wind up owing extra for their Missouri taxes.)

What if I live in a reciprocal state? Some states have arrangements with their neighboring states to share tax information and tax revenues. In a situation like that, you’ll just pay taxes in your home state. The states will actually sort out who gets how much of your tax money. Usually, it’s simply a matter of checking the “reciprocal state” button in the software.
For most people, if your federal return is fairly simple, preparing two states is not that difficult. Use a good software program, follow these directions, and you should be fine.

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206 thoughts on “Two State Tax Returns: Live in One State, Work in Another

  1. Hi Jan,

    I just accepted a job from an Illinois based company where I will be working from my home in California. However, while completing New Hire information online I noticed my employer has me down as Worked In: Illinois/Lived In: California. Is this correct? Thanks.

  2. Hi Julie,
    I believe that since you are living and working in California, that your employer should report it that way. That said, your employer may not be an authorized California employer and may have no choice but to list you as working in Illinois. I’d talk to the HR department. If you’re the only on in CA–that could be the problem. And getting them accepted as a CA employer my be the issue. If that’s the case, and you want the job–I guess you’re now working in Illinois.
    But ask first–is it just an HR mistake or is there a problem with you being in CA? The work around is just filing an Illinois tax return.

  3. Awesome Jan! Thank you. One last question for you. I used my VA address when I turned in my W2 (since that’s the address I currently reside for work purpose) so I believe they’re taking taxes out from income accordingly to VA’s tax rate. Would I still just file DC non-resident and a PA resident? Because I know VA has to play a role in there somewhere correct?

  4. Hi Mike W.,
    Although–how long are you living in VA? Because you may just cross over into becoming a VA resident. In that case you’d file a Virginia return and not file in PA at all.

  5. Hey Jan,
    It has been 4 months since I’ve been in VA. I’ll be staying in VA for two years for work because of my contract. However, family is in PA, my house is in PA, along with the license as well. so I thought I can leave that as my permanent residence because basically, its 3-4 days in VA because of work in DC and the rest of the week is in PA. Juggling between these three states makes it all so complicated when it comes to filing tax.

    Mike W.

  6. Hi Mike,
    I would put PA as your resident state. DC is your non-resident state (yes, it’s not a state but for tax purposes it is.) I would not file VA at all. You’re going home to PA every week, that’s your residence. I agree with you.

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