How to choose a tax filing status

Using the correct filing status can save you money

Derek Silva

Derek Silva

Published January 10, 2020

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • Unmarried individuals file as single, unless they pay most of the cost to care for a dependent

  • Married couples should usually file a joint return to minimize their taxes

  • A married couple who files separately will lose eligibility for many tax deductions and credits

  • A widow or widower with a dependent pays beneficial tax rates if their spouse died within the past two years

There are five tax filing statuses for your federal income taxes: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, and qualified widow(er). You must choose one when you file your federal income tax return and which you use determines your filing requirements, your tax rates, eligibility for tax credits, and the amount of your standard deduction.

Your status mostly depends on your marital status on the last day of the tax year. However, some people do qualify for more than one filing status. In that case, which you choose depends on whether or not you pay for dependents and and your specific situation. This brief guide will help you choose the best status for you.

If you qualify for multiple statuses and don’t know which to use, you may want to fill out your taxes using each possible status to see which saves you more. It is extra work but it won’t be very difficult if you’re using an online filing service. You also don’t pay anything more so long as you fill out the forms but don’t actually submit them. (Read more on how to file your taxes.)

In this article

Single filer

The single filing status is for individuals who are not married and who are not paying most of the costs for a dependent. An individual who uses this status is called a single filer. Even if you start the year married, you file as single if you’re divorced or legally separated on December 31.

If you are unmarried but you also pay for dependents, you may qualify to use the head of household filing status, which provides additional tax breaks.

2019 tax brackets: single filers

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% of every dollar earned between$0 and $9,700
12% of every dollar earned between$9,700 and $39,475
22% of every dollar earned between$39,475 and $84,200
24% of every dollar earned between$84,200 and $160,725
32% of every dollar earned between$160,725 and $204,100
35% of every dollar earned between$204,100 and $510,300
37% of every dollar earned above$510,300

The standard deduction for single filers in 2019 is $12,200, for taxes you file in 2020. You can claim an additional $1,650 if you’re blind or if you’re at least 65 years old.

2020 tax brackets: single filers

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% on every dollar earned between$0 and $9,875
12% on every dollar earned between$9,875 and $40,125
22% on every dollar earned between$40,125 and $85,525
24% on every dollar earned between$85,525 and $163,300
32% on every dollar earned between$163,300 and $207,350
35% on every dollar earned between$207,350 and $518,400
37% on every dollar earned above$518,400

The 2020 standard deduction for single filers is $12,400. This applies to the taxes you file in early 2021.

Head of household (HOH)

The head of household, or HOH, filing status is for unmarried individuals who paid more than half the annual cost of maintaining a home for themselves and a qualifying dependent. The dependent must live with you for more than half of the year. This doesn’t include temporary housing, such as college. A dependent also doesn’t have to live with you if they’re your parent.

The “cost of maintaining a home” is a vague term that includes the costs of paying for a home where you and your dependent can live:

You can only include the costs above if you actually paid for them. Any money or payments you receive through public assistance programs (like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program) do not count as money that you paid. Expenses paid for by an ex-spouse, through an alimony agreement, or with child support payments also don’t count.

The cost of maintaining a home doesn’t include the following:

  • Transportation costs
  • Clothing
  • Education expenses, like school tuition
  • Medical treatment
  • The cost of vacations or entertainment
  • Life insurance premiums

Single parents typically qualify as heads of household. This includes individuals who have custody of children after a divorce or legal separation, as long as they pay most of the cost to maintain their primary residence. If you qualify as a head of household, you likely qualify for additional tax breaks, such as the child and dependent care tax credit.

Learn more about how to file taxes after a divorce.

2019 tax brackets: head of household

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% of every dollar earned between$0 and $13,850
12% of every dollar earned between$13,850 and $52,850
22% of every dollar earned between$52,850 and $84,200
24% of every dollar earned between$84,200 and $160,700
32% of every dollar earned between$160,700 and $204,100
35% of every dollar earned between$204,100 and $510,300
37% of every dollar earned above$510,300

Heads of household have a standard deduction of $18,350 on their 2019 taxes, which they’ll file in 2020. They can claim an additional $1,650 if they’re blind or at least 65 years old.

2020 tax brackets: head of household

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% on every dollar earned between$0 and $14,100
12% on every dollar earned between$14,100 and $53,700
22% on every dollar earned between$53,700 and $85,500
24% on every dollar earned between$85,500 and $163,300
32% on every dollar earned between$163,300 and $207,350
35% on every dollar earned between$207,350 and $518,400
37% on every dollar earned above$518,400

The 2020 head of household standard deduction is $18,650. This applies to taxes you file in early 2021.

Married filing jointly (MFJ)

Married couples can file one tax return that covers both spouses by using the married filing jointly status. People with this status are called joint filers. A joint return generally offers twice as much for deductions and credits versus what single filers get. The income ranges for tax brackets are also higher, which means you typically fall into a lower bracket when filing jointly instead of single. (Read more on the tax benefits to getting married.)

Filing jointly is also easy. The main federal income tax form, the Form 1040, allows spouses to include both of their information right on one form.

Note that once you get married, you can no longer file as single or head of household. Your only options are married filing jointly or married filing separately. The vast majority of married couples should file jointly instead of separately.

If your spouse dies during the year and you do not remarry, you can still file a joint return for that year’s taxes.

2019 tax brackets: married filing jointly

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% of every dollar earned between$0 and $19,400
12% of every dollar earned between$19,400 and $78,950
22% of every dollar earned between$78,950 and $168,400
24% of every dollar earned between$168,400 and $321,450
32% of every dollar earned between$321,450 and $408,200
35% of every dollar earned between$408,200 and $612,350
37% of every dollar earned above$612,350

Taxpayers with a joint tax return have a standard deduction of $24,400 on their 2019 taxes, which are filed in early 2020. Each spouse is eligible for an additional deduction of $1,300 if they are 65 or older or blind.

2020 tax brackets: married filing jointly

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% on every dollar earned between$0 and $19,750
12% on every dollar earned between$19,750 and $80,250
22% on every dollar earned between$80,250 and $171,050
24% on every dollar earned between$171,050 and $326,600
32% on every dollar earned between$326,600 and $414,700
35% on every dollar earned between$414,700 and $622,050
37% on every dollar earned above$622,050

The 2020 deduction for joint filers is $24,800. This applies to the taxes you file in early 2021.

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Married filing separately (MFS)

If a married couple does not want to file a joint return, they can opt to use the status of married filing separately. Married couples should usually file jointly because they will pay less tax overall or get a larger refund.

Couples that file separate returns forfeit their ability to claim many tax deductions. They may also pay a higher tax rate than if they filed together. In general, the tax code discourages couples from filing separately, and this is especially true after the 2017 tax reform.

There are only a handful of situations where you should consider filing separate tax returns:

Debt

If one spouse has debt that is subject to refund seizure or an income-based payment, such as certain student loans plans, filing separately may be a good idea.

Higher itemized deductions

It might make sense to file separately if at least one spouse can get higher itemized deductions by doing so. Most individuals can’t itemize at all and in order for this situation to apply, you would likely need to have qualified deductions that are otherwise limited by your adjusted gross income. Expenses you can itemize that might make you consider filing separately include medical expenses worth more than 7.5% of your income and charitable contributions.

Keep in mind that if you file separatelty and one spouse itemizes, the other spouse is required to itemize as well, even if their personal itemized deductions are less than the standard deduction.

Your spouse is bad with money

If you have concerns about your spouse’s tax situation or don’t want to be held liable for anything on their tax return, talk to them about filing separately. This could include someone going through a divorce or even someone who fears their spouse is evading taxes.

When you file separately, you are not liable for things on your spouse’s return, and if your spouse is audited by the IRS, you are not involved in the audit. But filing separately can be tricky if you live in a community property state, since the state views all assets as jointly owned.

If you want to file separately because your spouse has past-due taxes and you’re worried that filing jointly could reduce your refund, you may still be able to file jointly and get the refund you’re entitled to. You would be considered an injured spouse in this situation and could recoup your refund by attaching Form 8379 to your income tax return.

Deductions and credits lost when filing separately

When you use the married filing separately filing status, you will likely end up paying a higher tax rate because the income ranges for each bracket are lower than when you file jointly. Plus, you will probably have more taxable income because you are no longer eligible for the following deductions:

  • The standard deduction if your spouse itemizes (you will need to itemize too)
  • The student loan interest deduction
  • The credit for child and dependent care expenses
  • The earned income tax credit (EITC)
  • The adoption credit (in most cases)
  • Education tax credits: the American opportunity tax credit and lifetime learning credit.
  • The credit for the elderly or the disabled, if you lived with your spouse for any time during the year

The amounts you can claim for other credits, like the child tax credit (CTC) and the saver’s credit, are limited to less than what you would be able to claim if you filed jointly. You will also need to pay tax on 85% of your Social Security benefits (or railroad retirement benefits) in most cases, regardless of your other income.

For more on whether or not you should file separately from your spouse, you want to talk to a tax expert, like a tax preparer.

2019 tax brackets: married filing separately

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% of every dollar earned between$0 and $9,700
12% of every dollar earned between$9,700 and $39,475
22% of every dollar earned between$39,475 and $84,200
24% of every dollar earned between$84,200 and $160,725
32% of every dollar earned between$160,725 and $204,100
35% of every dollar earned between$204,100 and $306,175
37% of every dollar earned above$306,175

A taxpayer who’s married filing separately gets a standard deduction of $12,200 for 2019 (what you file in early 2020). The deduction is $1,300 more if you are blind or at least 65 years old.

2020 tax brackets: married filing separately

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% on every dollar earned between$0 and $9,875
12% on every dollar earned between$9,875 and $40,125
22% on every dollar earned between$40,125 and $85,525
24% on every dollar earned between$85,525 and $163,300
32% on every dollar earned between$163,300 and $207,350
35% on every dollar earned between$207,350 and $311,025
37% on every dollar earned above$311,025

The 2020 standard deduction for married individuals who file separately is $12,400. This applies to the taxes you file in early 2021.

Qualifying widow(er) (QW)

You are eligible to file as a qualifying widow or qualifying widower if your spouse died within the last two years. The IRS determines the year of death as the final year in which you could file a joint return with your spouse. To claim this status, you must have a dependent child. (The IRS also calls this status is also called the qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.)

You cannot use this status if you remarry within two years. You may also lose eligibility if you itemize deductions.

The qualifying widow(er) filing status lets a surviving spouse file with the same tax benefits as a joint filer. That means more money from deductions and credits compared to filing as single. As with joint filers, the tax brackets also have higher income thresholds, so a qualifying widow(er) will owe less income tax.

You can still use this filing status if your child is away temporarily (like for school or the military), if they pass away during the year, or if they’re kidnapped during the year.

2019 tax brackets: qualified widow(er)

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% of every dollar earned between$0 and $19,400
12% of every dollar earned between$19,400 and $78,950
22% of every dollar earned between$78,950 and $168,400
24% of every dollar earned between$168,400 and $321,450
32% of every dollar earned between$321,450 and $408,200
35% of every dollar earned between$408,200 and $612,350
37% of every dollar earned above$612,350

A qualified widow(er) can take a standard deduction of $24,400 on their 2019 taxes. These are the taxes you file in early 2020. You deduction is $1,300 more if you’re at least 65 year old or if you’re blind.

2020 tax brackets: qualified widow(er)

TAX RATEINCOME RANGE
10% on every dollar earned between$0 and $19,750
12% on every dollar earned between$19,750 and $80,250
22% on every dollar earned between$80,250 and $171,050
24% on every dollar earned between$171,050 and $326,600
32% on every dollar earned between$326,600 and $414,700
35% on every dollar earned between$414,700 and $622,050
37% on every dollar earned above$622,050

The 2020 deduction for a qualified widow(er) is $24,800. This applies to the taxes you file in early 2021.

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