Determining Your Tax Filing Status

When filing your tax return, one of the things that you have to identify first is your filing status. Your filing status is the key to determining how much your standard deduction is (if you are not itemizing your return) and what tax bracket your are going to be at or how much your tax rate would be. Essentially, there are five tax filing status that you would fall under:

  • – Single
  • – Head of Household
  • – Married Filing Separate
  • – Married Filing Jointly
  • – Qualifying Widow/widower with dependent child

You can only file one status for tax purposes and if your tax status changes during the year, your status will depend on your marital status, whether married or unmarried, on the last day of your tax year. For example, the last day of the tax year for most of us is December 31. So for tax year 2010, you are considered unmarried for the whole year if you are unmarried or legally separated from your spouse under a divorce or separate maintenance decree on December 31, 2010. The divorce must be final on that date for it to be considered for that tax year. However, if you get divorce with one person and remarried with a different person on December 31, 2010, then you will be considered as married and you can file jointly with your new spouse.

(As you know, for federal tax purposes, marriage is defined as a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife.)

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Single

You can file as single if, on the last day of the year, you are not married. In addition, you can also claim single if you are “considered unmarried” or legally separated from your spouse under a divorce or separate maintenance decree, you did not remarry and you do not qualify for another filing status.

Married Filing Jointly

Your filing status is married filing jointly if you are married on the last day of the tax year and both of you and your spouse agreed to file a joint return. The income and expenses will be combined on your joint return. In addition, you can still file married filing joint even if only one spouse works (for single income family).

Married Filing Separately

Married couples can select married filing separately as their filing status. Usually, married people choose this filing status because each married individual want to be solely responsible for their own taxes or it may yield more refunds or less taxes than filing a joint return. However, it should be noted that when married couple filed taxes separately, both spouse must select the same methodology of deduction. For example, if the wife is itemizing her return, the husband must itemize as well even if the standard deduction is more than the itemized ones.

If your spouse passed away in the tax year you are filing, you can still use married filing jointly with your deceased spouse. The year of death is the last year that you are filing married joint.

Head of Household

You may be able to file as head of household if you pass all of the following tests:

  • Unmarried Test – you are never married, unmarried or “considered unmarried” on the last day of the year. For head of household, you can be “considered unmarried” even if you are married on the last day of the tax year (a) for as long as your spouse did not live in your home during the last six months of the year (your spouse is considered living in your home if he/she is only gone temporarily due to special circumstances) AND (b) you and your spouse are filing separate returns AND (c) you must claim an exemption of a qualifying child (with the exception of a noncustodial parent claiming the exemption). AND (d) you meet the remaining two test below.
  • Qualifying Person Test – a qualified person lives with you in your home for at least six months. However, if the qualifying person is your parent, he or she does not have to live with you.
  • Household Expenses Test – you paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year.

Qualifying Widow/Widower with Dependent Child

If your spouse passed away in the tax year you are filing, you can still use married filing jointly with your deceased spouse. The year of death is the last year that you are filing married joint.

You may be able to use the Qualifying Widow/Widower with dependent child for the next two years following the year of death of your spouse.  For example, if your spouse died in 2008 and still have not remarried, you may be able to use this status for tax year 2009 and 2010. The advantage of using this status is it allows you to benefit for the joint return standard deduction (if you are not itemizing) and joint return tax rate.

source: IRS Publication 17