Which is the right income tax return filing status for me?

The first thing you need to know when you prepare your tax return is your filing status. This is important because it will determine the tax brackets, standard deductions and eligibility for tax credits and tax deductions.

There are five tax filing statuses:

  • Single
  • Married filing jointly
  • Married filing separately
  • Head of household
  • Qualified widow or widower

Single

Who can use it:

Unmarried people who don’t qualify for another status.

How it works:

  • If you are divorced by the last day of the year, you are considered unmarried for the whole year for tax purposes.

What it gets you:

Possibly lower taxes in certain situations. This happens with high-income individuals because of the highest tax bracket for married people filing jointly are less than double the income levels that determine the same tax bracket for single people. For example, if both you and your partner make $350,000 in 2019, both of you will remain in the 35% bracket. But if you file this income as a married couple together, it puts you in the 37% bracket.

Married filing jointly

Who can use it:

Most married couples

How it works:

  • You report your combined income, and deduct your combined deductions and credits on the same form.
  • You can file a joint return even if one of you didn’t have income during the year.
  • If you were divorced on the last day of the year, the IRS considers you unmarried during the whole year, so you can’t file jointly that year.
  • If your spouse died during the year, the IRS considers you married for the whole year, so you can file jointly that year

What it gets you:

Usually a lower tax bill than if you would file separately.

Married filing separately

Who can use it:

Married people who want to be responsible only for their own tax liability, or people who were married on December 31, but at the time of tax filing they can’t agree to file a joint return (e.g divorced during this time).

How it works:

  • If you are married, you can’t use single status, because the tax brackets might be different from married filing separately
  • People who are filing separately often pay more than they would if they file jointly because they can’t deduct certain deductions

What it gets you:

Usually a higher tax bill, but there are some occasions when it makes sense to use it:

  • if you are on an income-based student loan repayment plan, filing separately can reduce your monthly payment if your payments are based only on your income not your combined income.

Head of household

Who can use it:

Unmarried people who paid more than half the cost of the home they live and provided most of the support for at least one other person for more than half the year

How it works:

  • Only unmarried people can use this filing status who have to support other family members
  • IRS considers you unmarried for tax purposes if you are married but your spouse didn’t live in your home for more than six months, you paid more than half of the cost of keeping up the home, and that’s your child’s main home

What it gets you:
This filing status gets you bigger tax deductions than if you would file as single.

Qualified widow or widower

Who can use it:

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

How it works:

  • if your spouse died during the tax year, you can use the married filing jointly status. Then, for the next two years, you can use the qualified widow or widower status if you have a dependent child

What it gets you:

This status gives you the same tax brackets and standard deductions as you were married and file jointly