How Do I Choose the Right Tax Filing Status?

Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
You can trust that we maintain strict editorial integrity in our writing and assessments; however, we receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners and get approved. Here's how we make money.
How do I choose the right tax filing status?

Your tax filing status can have a big effect on your bank account and your patience. It determines which tax forms you’ll need to fill out in April and which deductions and credits you can claim — as well as the size of some of those deductions and credits.

Here’s a rundown of the five tax filing statuses and how they affect your tax bill, so you can select the right one when you file your taxes.

Tax filing status options

Tax filing statusWho typically uses it
Head of householdUnmarried people paying at least half the cost of housing and support for others.
Married filing separatelyMarried high earners, people who think their spouses may be hiding income, or people whose spouses have tax liability issues.
Married filing jointlyMost married couples.
Qualified widow or widowerPeople who lost a spouse recently and are supporting a child at home.
SingleUnmarried people who don’t qualify for another filing status.

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:

  • 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 filing status is only for unmarried people who have to support others.
  • 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.
  • 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 leeway on exemptions than if you just filed single. The standard deduction for single status is $6,300 in 2016 — but it’s $9,300 for head of household. Also, the IRS doesn’t begin limiting exemptions and itemized deductions until you make at least $284,050, versus $258,250 for single filers.

Qualified widow or widower

Who can use it:

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

How it works:

  • If your spouse died during the tax year and you could’ve used the “married filing jointly” 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 2016 and you haven’t remarried, you can file jointly in 2016 and then file as a qualified widow or widower (also called “surviving spouse”) in 2017 and 2018.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

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 overdue taxes 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 file single, and their tax brackets are different from if you’re married and filing separately. People who file separately almost always 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. 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 credit.
  • You can’t take exclusions or credits for adoption expenses in most cases.
  • You can’t take the American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning credit.
  • You can take only half the standard deduction, child tax credit, retirement savings contributions credit, personal exemptions deduction or itemized deduction.
  • 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; that’s because your payments will be based only on your income rather than on your joint income as a couple. Also, the IRS limits itemized deductions for joint filers with combined AGIs of more than $309,900. For high earners, filing separately might keep each of you under that threshold and thus lower your overall tax bill. Filing separately could also make more medical expenses deductible.

However, 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:

  • 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.
  • Warning for sneaky people: The IRS can make you use the “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately” 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. That’s because 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 2016 and you each make $90,000. You each file single. Under the 2016 tax rate schedules, you’ll each be in the 25% tax bracket. Now let’s assume you and your partner get married and file jointly. You still each make $90,000. You might expect to remain in the 25% 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 28% bracket. Let’s hope your spouse was worth it.

Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: torem@nerdwallet.com.