How to Determine Your Tax Filing Status

When you sit down to file your taxes, you need to decide how you fit into the greater scheme of things. Are you single, married? Widowed, or are you responsible for someone who is not related to you? What about your dependent parent who is still living in his/her own home? It's all about financial relationships. Your filing status can determines the tax rate at which your income is taxed. There are five tax filing status categories that determine eligibility to claim various deductions and tax credits. When more than one filing status applies to your situation, you should choose the one that results in the lowest tax. Use these steps to help you determine your tax filing status.


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    Choose your filing status based on your marital status first, and then consider your household status in that order as listed in IRS Pub 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
    • Claim single status if you are unmarried and have no dependents. You can file Single only if you are unmarried under law. If your spouse died before the first of the year being reported you can still file single, although Qualifying Widow(er) may give you a lower tax liability or a higher refund. Marital status details are found in the IRS Pub 17 page 22
  2. Image titled Choose a Credit Counseling Agency Step 7
    Claim Married Filing Jointly, MFJ, if you are married, living together for more than 6 months, not legally separated. If your spouse is in a combat zone, you are considered to be living together, and you may sign whether or not you have a power of attorney.
    • You must be married in a state-approved civil or religious ceremony, or by a nationally approved means if married in another country. For tax purposes, common law marriages are valid only in Alabama, Colorado, Kansas, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Oklahoma, and Texas. Check your state law for specific criteria. Washington, D.C. recognizes common law marriages, but it is not a state, therefore, that marriage is not valid for tax purposes. [1]
    • If your marriage was annulled, it is considered to never have existed for tax purposes, and you should file as a single taxpayer or as head of household (if qualified). This is true even if you filed as married during the marriage. You must file a 1040-X for all years the marriage was in force up to the statute of limitations.
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    Claim Married Filing Separately, MFS, if you are married, but legally separated, or not living together more than half of the year. However, you can file MFS is this results in a lower tax liability than the joint return, or if you choose to file for only your own income. You could gain a lesser tax liability. This choice has its drawbacks. There are significant disadvantages to filing separately.
    • One spouse claims the dependent exemptions and will have the right to itemize and claim the standard deduction, but that will be the same standard deduction as if filing single. Almost all credits and deductions will be halved. The other spouse can claim the personal deduction only, but cannot claim the dependent exemption, 65, blind/disabled, or the standard deduction. Additionally, dependent and child care expenses, child tax credits, adoption expenses, EIC, and many other credits and deductions are forfeit. IRS Pub 17. p.23
    • Under MFS if your spouse files for deductions and credits due to you, because you have child custody, for example, you can claim the proper deductions and credits by filing the Innocent Spouse Relief form 8857 IRS Pub 17. p.24.
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    Claim Qualifying Widow(er), QW, if you are widowed during the year being reported. You should still use the MFJ for that year. The following 2 years you can use the Qualified Widow(er) status or single, whichever gives you a lower tax liability. After that you will use Single, or Head of Household, if you qualify. However, you have the option of filing single or Head of Household, if you qualify, for the subsequent years if it would give you a lower tax liability. IRS Pub 17. p.24
    • Claim Head of Household, HH, if you are unmarried, paid more than 50% of the cost of keeping a home, and have a Qualifying person living with you. A dependent parent living in his/her own home for which you pay more than 50% of the expenses doesn't have to fit the residency test. IRS Pub 17. p.243


  • You would handle the death of a spouse in the following manner. If your spouse died during the year being reported you would still file MFJ.
  • If your spouse died after the first of the year, but before the tax forms are signed, the administrator or executor of the will is to sign. Other exceptional criteria are found in the IRS Pub 17 page 23.

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Categories: Taxes and Fees