As you prepare to file your taxes, you may have a million questions, such as: What is the best tax filing status? Are you the head of your household? Single? Married Filing Separately? Or Married Filing Jointly? How do these filing statuses relate to each other? Which filing status is right for you?

There are a few factors that will determine your answer, such as whether you are married, what your household income is, and which tax credits or deductions you are looking to claim. The number of dependents you have may also affect your answer.

Five Different Types of Tax Filing Statuses:

  • Head of household
  • Qualified widow(er)
  • Married filing jointly
  • Married filing separately
  • Single

How you file your taxes can have a big impact on what you owe and what forms you need to complete.

Find out how your tax filing status can affect which tax deductions and credits you can claim, so you can choose the correct one when you file your taxes.

Tax Filing Status Options

Filing Status Who Should Use It
Head of household Unmarried people who cover half of the costs associated with their housing and support for others
Married filing jointly Most married couples
Married filing separately Couples with high incomes, those whose spouses have tax liability issues, or those who think their spouses are hiding incomes
Qualified widow or widower Those who have recently lost a spouse and are supporting a child at home
Single Unmarried people who are not eligible for another filing status

Head of Household

Who should use it?

Unmarried people who pay more than half the cost of maintaining a home for the year and have supported at least one other person for more than half the year should use the filing status Head of Household.

How It Works

This tax filing status cannot be used if you are simply the highest earner in your family. The IRS considers this tax filing status to be reserved for unmarried people who have to support others.

The IRS has rules concerning people who are unmarried. If you are not legally married, the IRS considers you unmarried. You can also be considered unmarried if your spouse did not live with you for six months during the tax year (temporary absences do not count), you paid more than half the costs of maintaining the house, and that house was your child's primary residence. Home maintenance costs include property taxes, mortgage interest or rent, utilities, repairs and maintenance, property insurance, food, and other household expenses.

There are also rules about kids. In order to qualify as head of household, there must also be a "qualifying person" involved to use this filing status. In general, this means a child under 19, or a student under 24, who lives at home for more than half the year. Parents can be listed as well, and in that case, the parent does not have to reside with you - you just have to demonstrate that at least half of their support is provided by you. Siblings and in-laws may also count if you provide at least half of their support.

Benefits

Using this filing status entitles you to greater tax deductions and a lower tax bracket than if you filed as a single. In 2021, the standard deduction for singles will be $12,550, but for the head of household, it will be $18,800. If you are a single filer, $50,000 of taxable income puts you in the 22% bracket, but if you are filing as head of household, you are only in the 12% bracket.

Married Filing Jointly

Who should use it?

Most married couples should be using the filing status Married Filing Jointly.

How It Works

With this status, you will both file together. Using the same form, you combine your income and deduct all your combined deductions and credits. Even if both of you have no income or deductions, you can file a joint return.

Divorce has its own rules. The IRS considers you unmarried for the entire year if you were divorced by the end of the year. In that case, you won't be able to file jointly. Nevertheless, if your spouse dies during the year, the IRS considers you married for the entire year. That year, even if you don't have children, you can file jointly.

Your tax liability is also shared between you and your partner. If you file jointly, the IRS holds both of you responsible for taxes, interest, and penalties. As a result, you might be on the hook if your spouse doesn't send the check or messes up the math.

Benefits

It is likely that you will have a lower tax bill if you file separately. Standard deductions - if you do not itemize your deduction - can be higher, and you can take deductions and credits that are generally not available if you file separately.

info icon Helpful Resource: Should Married Couples File Jointly or Separately?

Married Filing Separately

Who should use it?

People who earn high incomes and are married, people who suspect their spouses are hiding income, and people whose spouses have tax liability issues should opt for this filing status. You might consider this option if, for example, you are contemplating divorce and do not trust that your spouse is being honest about income. It also might be worth considering filing separately if you've recently married someone with tax problems.

How It Works

Filing separately differs from filing singly. The single tax filing status is only available to single individuals, and their tax brackets differ in some ways from those of married couples filing separately.

Separate filers generally pay more than joint filers. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Interest on student loans cannot be deducted.
  • Child and dependent care expenses cannot be deducted. In addition, the amount you can exclude if your employer has a dependent care assistance program is half what it is if you file jointly.
  • The earned income tax credit is not available.
  • In most cases, adoption expenses cannot be excluded or credited.
  • Neither the lifetime learning credit nor the American opportunity credit applies.
  • You can only take half of the standard deduction, child tax credit, and retirement savings deduction.
  • If you have capital losses, you can only deduct $1,500 instead of $3,000.
  • Even if the standard deduction is greater, you must itemize if your spouse does. You'll also have to determine which spouse gets which deduction, and that can get complicated.

Benefits

There are a few perks to filing separately, but usually just a higher tax bill.

Filing separately may reduce your monthly bill if you are on an income-based student loan repayment plan based on adjusted gross income, rather than your joint income as a couple.

In states with community property laws - Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin - anything couples earn generally belongs to both spouses equally, thereby eliminating most of these perks.

Qualified Widow or Widower

Who should use it?

A qualified widow or widower is someone who lost a spouse recently and is supporting a child at home.

How It Works

Time is on your side. You can file jointly in the year your spouse died if you could've used the "married filing jointly" tax filing status before his or her death (even if you didn't actually file jointly). If you have a dependent child, you can then use the qualified widow or widower status for the next two years. If, for instance, your spouse died in 2020 and you haven't remarried, you can file jointly in 2020, and then as a qualified widow or widower (also called a "surviving spouse") in 2021 and 2022.

The kids are the most important thing. Your spouse may not be eligible for this status if your children are already out of the house when he or she dies since one of the children has to live with you. During the tax year, you must also pay more than half of the costs associated with maintaining the house.

Benefits

If you qualify for the widower or widow status, you can file as if you were married and filing jointly. This will result in a higher standard deduction and a better tax bracket than if you filed as a single person.

Single

Who should use it?

Unmarried people who don't qualify for another filing status must file as singles.

How It Works

Unmarried people must follow certain rules. Once you're legally divorced by the end of the year, the IRS considers you unmarried for the entire year. Even if you filed jointly in previous years, the IRS will consider you unmarried if your marriage is annulled.

Do not try to sneak around to take advantage of this filing status. If you get a divorce, the IRS may allow you to use a "married filing jointly" or "married filing separately" tax filing status so you can file single and then remarry your ex in the next tax year. Don't get divorced on New Year's Eve and then get married again the next day for tax purposes - the IRS will catch you.

Benefits

If you make a lot of money, you may pay lower taxes. Due to the fact that at the very top tax brackets, the income levels that determine how much tax you pay for a married couple filing jointly are less than double what they are for a single person. There is a phenomenon known as "the marriage penalty," which means married couples end up in higher tax brackets faster than single people.

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