How Do I Choose the Right Tax Filing Status?

Single, married filing jointly or separately, or head of household: we explain are the tax filing status choices.

Tina OremNovember 11, 2020
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How do I choose the right tax filing status?

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There are five types of tax filing statuses: head of household, qualified widow(er), married filing jointly, married filing separately and single. Your tax filing status can have a big effect on your tax bill and which tax forms you’ll need to fill out.

Here's how your tax filing status can affect which tax deductions and credits you can claim, so you can select the right one when you file your taxes.

Tax filing status options

Who might use it

Head of household

Unmarried people paying at least half the cost of housing and support for others.

Married filing separately

Married high earners, people who think their spouses may be hiding income, or people whose spouses have tax liability issues.

Married filing jointly

Most married couples.

Qualified widow or widower

People who lost a spouse recently and are supporting a child at home.

Single

Unmarried people who don’t qualify for another filing status.

» If you're ready to file ... check out our picks for the best tax software

Head of household

Who can use it:

Typically, unmarried people who paid more than half the cost to keep up a home for the year and provided most or all the support for at least one other person for more than half the year.

How it works:

  • It's not arbitrary. You can’t use this tax filing status if you’re simply the one who “wears the pants” in your family or makes the most money. In the eyes of the IRS, this tax filing status is only for unmarried people who have to support others.

  • There are rules about being unmarried. The IRS considers you unmarried if you’re not legally married. But you can also be considered unmarried for this purpose if your spouse didn’t live in your home for the last six months of the tax year (temporary absences don’t count), you paid more than half the cost of keeping up the house, and that house was your child’s main home. The cost of keeping up a home includes the property taxes, mortgage interest or rent, utilities, repairs and maintenance, property insurance, food and other household expenses.

  • There are rules about kids. Speaking of children, to use this filing status, there also has to be a “qualifying person” involved. In general, that can be a child under 19, or under 24 if the kid’s a student, who lives in your house for more than half the year. It can also be your mother or father, and in that case, mom or dad doesn’t have to live with you — you just have to prove you provide at least half their support. In some situations, your siblings and in-laws also count if you provide at least half their support. Be sure to read IRS Publication 17 for specifics.

What it gets you:

This filing status gets you bigger tax deductions and more favorable tax brackets than if you just filed single. The standard deduction for single status is $12,400 in 2020 — but it’s $18,650 for head of household. And $50,000 of taxable income will land you in the 22% tax bracket if you're a single filer, but if you're filing as head of household, you'll only be in the 12% bracket.

Qualified widow or widower

Who can use it:

People who lost a spouse recently and are supporting a child at home.

How it works:

  • You have time. If your spouse died during the tax year and you could’ve used the “married filing jointly” tax filing status before his or her death (even if you didn’t actually file jointly), you can file jointly in the year your spouse died. Then, for the next two years you can use the qualified widow or widower status if you have a dependent child. For example, if your spouse died in 2018 and you haven't remarried, you can file jointly in 2018 and then file as a qualified widow or widower (also called “surviving spouse”) in 2019 and 2020.

  • The kids are key. If the kids are already out of the house when your spouse dies, this status probably won’t work for you, because you have to have a qualifying child living with you. You also have to provide more than half of the cost of keeping up the house during the tax year.

What it gets you:

The qualified widow or widower status lets you file as if you were married filing jointly. That gets you a much higher standard deduction and better tax bracket situation than if you filed as single.

Married, filing jointly

Who uses it:

Most married couples.

How it works:

  • You file together. You report your combined income and deduct your combined allowable deductions and credits on the same forms. You can file a joint return even if one of you had no income or deductions.

  • There are rules about divorce. If you were legally divorced by the last day of the year, the IRS considers you unmarried for the whole year. That means you can’t file jointly that year. If your spouse died during the tax year, however, the IRS considers you married for the whole year. You can file jointly that year, even if you don’t have kids in the house.

  • You're both responsible. Note that when you file jointly, the IRS holds both of you responsible for the taxes and any interest or penalties due. This means you could be on the hook if your spouse doesn’t send the check or flubs the math.

What it gets you:

Probably a lower tax bill than if you file separately; your standard deduction — if you don’t itemize — could be higher, and you can take deductions and credits that generally aren’t available if you file separately.

Married, filing separately

Who uses it:

High earners who are married, people who think their spouses may be hiding income, or people whose spouses have tax liability issues. For example, if you're thinking of or are in the process of divorcing and don't trust that your spouse is being upfront about income, this option might be for you. If you've recently married someone who is bringing tax problems into the mix, filing separately might be worth thinking about.

How it works:

  • Filing separately isn’t the same as filing single. Only unmarried people can use the single tax filing status, and their tax brackets are different in certain spots from if you’re married and filing separately.

  • People who file separately often pay more than they would if they file jointly. Here are a few reasons:

    • You can’t deduct student loan interest.

    • You can’t take the credit for child and dependent care expenses. Also, the amount you can exclude from income if your employer has a dependent care assistance program is half what it is if you file jointly.

    • You can’t take the earned income tax credit.

    • You can’t take exclusions or credits for adoption expenses in most cases.

    • You can take only half the standard deduction, child tax credit or deduction for retirement savings contributions.

    • You can deduct only $1,500 of capital losses instead of $3,000.

    • If your spouse itemizes, you have to itemize too, even if the standard deduction would get you more. You’ll also have to decide which spouse gets each deduction, and that can get complicated.

What it gets you:

Usually just a bigger tax bill, but there are a few possible perks.

  • If you’re on an income-based student loan repayment plan that keys off adjusted gross income, filing separately could reduce your monthly bill if your payments are based only on your income rather than on your joint income as a couple.

  • If you live in a community property state — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin — anything couples earn generally belongs to both spouses equally, which kills off most of these perks.

Single

Who uses it:

Unmarried people who don’t qualify for another filing status.

How it works:

  • There are rules about being unmarried. If you’re legally divorced by the last day of the year, the IRS considers you unmarried for the whole year. If your marriage is annulled, the IRS also considers you unmarried even if you filed jointly in previous years.

  • Don't be sneaky. The IRS can make you use the “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately” tax filing status if you get a divorce just so you can file single and then remarry your ex in the next tax year. Translation: Don’t get divorced every New Year’s Eve for tax purposes and then get married again the next day — the IRS is onto that trick.

What it gets you:

Possibly lower taxes if you make a lot of money. That’s because at the very highest tax brackets, the income levels that determine the tax brackets for married people filing jointly are less than double the income levels that determine the tax brackets for single people. It’s a phenomenon called “the marriage penalty,” and it means married couples end up in higher tax brackets faster than single people do.

For example, let’s assume you and your partner are single in 2020 and you each have $325,000 of taxable income. You each use the single tax filing status. You’ll each be in the 35% tax bracket. Now let’s assume you and your partner are married and use the married, filing jointly tax filing status. You still each make $325,000. You might expect to remain in the 35% bracket, but that’s not the case anymore. If you’re married and filing jointly, your income — simply because it’s combined — puts you squarely in the 37% bracket.

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