Filing statuses are usually the first choice you need to make when completing a tax return. Most tax software will dynamically give other choices based on this initial decision. Depending on your choice, you qualify for various other tax credits and deductions. But is it a decision? For the most part, your filing status is predetermined by your marital status. Only married taxpayers really have a choice in how they will file taxes. For everyone else, there is only one answer. This post goes over the statuses and when you use them. The filing statuses are: Single, Married Filing Separately, Married Filing Jointly, Head of Household, and Qualifying Widower.
Marital Status Interlude
As mentioned above, your filing status is primarily determined by your marital status. This interlude is to educate how the IRS decides what your marital status is. The IRS looks at your marital status on December 31. If you are married by the end of December 31st, you are considered married for the tax year. If you are not married by the end of December 31st, you are not married for the tax year. The IRS uses the same definition of married as your state of residence. Basically, if under your state’s law you are married, you are married in the eyes of the IRS. Similarly, if you are divorced under state law, the IRS recognizes that divorce. The IRS also recognizes legal separation, but IRS rules require a court order or decree formalizing the final separation. If you live in a state which requires a period of legal separation before a divorce, that is not enough for the IRS to consider you legally separated.
The Single filing status is the simplest to use. You use the Single filing status if you are not married and don’t have a Qualifying Person (see post on Dependents). You may also file as Single if you are legally separated. Using the Single filing status qualifies you for most tax credits and gives you the baseline Standard Deduction; for tax year 2020 the base Standard deduction is $12,400. (Deductions are covered in depth in another post.)
Married Filing Jointly
The Married Filing Jointly status is for married couples who want to file a single tax return which includes income from both spouses. The couple doesn’t need to live together to qualify for this status. Both spouses include all their income from all sources and are equally responsible for any tax owed. The tax code encourages married couples to use this filing status when possible. As with the Single status, you qualify for most tax credits. However, the Married Filing Jointly Standard Deduction is double the Standard Deduction for Single taxpayers: $24,800.
Married Filing Separately
The other option most married taxpayers have is the Married Filing Separately status. Married couples can choose to each independently file their own tax returns. They are only responsible for the taxes on their own income. However, this filing status is greatly disfavored. Using this status generally disqualifies you from most tax credits. Each spouse is able to use the same Standard Deduction as someone who files as Single, but both spouses either need to use the Standard Deduction or itemize deductions on their tax returns.
Community Property States: You may be required to report half of your spouse’s income as your own even if you file a separate return. Consult a tax professional on the implications in Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin.
Head of Household
I’m the head of my household, I can use this status, right? No. The Head of Household filing status is for unmarried or considered unmarried taxpayers who have and claim a Qualifying Person. You qualify for most tax credits and have a larger Standard Deduction: $18,650. A Qualifying Person is different from a dependent and it is possible to be filing as Single with a dependent. (See post on dependents.)
Considered unmarried: The IRS allows married taxpayers to be considered unmarried to claim the Head of Household filing status if they have not lived with their spouse at ANY point July through December of the tax year AND have a Qualifying Person who is your child.
First off, I’m sorry for your loss. The IRS allows taxpayers whose spouses have died recently to use the Qualifying Widower status. For the year your spouse dies, you are still considered married for tax purposes and should file a joint return with your deceased spouse. This will serve as your spouse’s final tax return. For the next 2 years after your spouse passed, you may use the Qualifying Widower status if you have a dependent child. Qualifying Widowers have the same Standard Deduction as a Married Filing Jointly return and qualify for most tax credits.
If you have questions on your tax situation, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and an appointment can be scheduled to discuss the details. As always with any post like this, this is not intended to serve as legal advice and everyone’s situation is different. Please consult an attorney about your situation.