When it comes to filing your taxes - status matters! Here’s a breakdown of the five different tax filing statuses and who is eligible to use them.

Tax season has rolled around again (cue the Jaws soundtrack). I know you’d probably prefer not to think about your taxes, and I’m right there with you. But this year, think about getting started early – that way you reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow a lot sooner (assuming you do, in fact, get a return).

Today, I’ll start with one of the simpler tax season tasks – deciding on your filing status. This seemingly small decision will determine a lot of different factors when it comes time to file, so it’s important to get it right.

So, without further ado, let’s get started.

What is a filing status?

Before we get into the details of each filing status, let’s define what a filing status is for. 

Filing status is used to determine the rate at which your income is taxed. There are a total of five different statuses: 

  • Single.
  • Married filing jointly.
  • Married filing separately.
  • Head of household.
  • Qualifying widow or widower with dependent children.

Choosing the correct filing status is important because it affects how much you will pay in taxes. To maximize deductions and tax breaks you want to make sure you are filing taxes with the correct status. 

A filing status overview

  • Single – Unmarried and you don’t qualify for another status.
  • Married filing jointly – Married couples who both agree to file together.
  • Married filing separatelyMarried taxpayers who both agree to file separately; high earning couples; spouses who want separate liability; your spouse owes the IRS money and you want to protect your tax return.
  • Head of household – Unmarried and supporting dependents.
  • Widow/widower – Someone who has recently lost their spouse and is caring for dependent children.

Filing single

How To Know When You Should File Jointly, Head Of Household, Or Single - Single

Who can use it?

If you are unmarried, legally separated, or divorced as of the last day of the year (December 31) and you don’t qualify for any other status, then you can file as single.

Of the five filing statuses, the single status is often seen as the least desirable as it offers the lowest standard deduction rate at $12,550 (as of 2021).

You are eligible for the single status if:

  • You were not married as of the last day of the year (December 31).
  • You do not qualify for any other filing status.

The benefits of filing single

While filing as “single” might not be the most sought-after status, there are some situations where it may be beneficial. 

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “marriage penalty?” 

The marriage penalty occurs when two high earners get married, file jointly, and end up paying more in taxes than they would have if they were single.

For example, let’s say you and your spouse each make $350,000/year (yay for you!). If you file jointly your combined income will total $700,000/year putting you into the highest tax bracket at 37%. 

On the other hand, if you and your partner each make $350,000 but you are not married and you both file as “single”, you will each qualify for a lower tax bracket, at 35%. 

Married filing jointly

How To Know When You Should File Jointly, Head Of Household, Or Single - Married filing jointly

Who can use it?

You can file as “married filing jointly” if on the last day of the year (December 31st), you are legally married and you and your spouse agree to file together. As a married person, you have the option to file jointly or separately. While filing jointly is usually advantageous, it’s not always the case.

When you file jointly you fill out one tax return and report your combined income, deductions, and credits. Both you and your spouse take on equal responsibility for the return and the taxes.

Am I eligible to file as married?

You are eligible to file as married filing jointly if you meet the following two criteria:

  • Married as of the last day of the year (December 31).
  • You were not divorced, legally separated, or unmarried as of December 31 (there is an exception when it comes to widows/widowers — more on that below.) 

The benefits

By filing as married filing jointing you can save time and money by only filing one tax return. You may also enjoy: 

  • Lower taxes.
  • Higher standard deduction at $24,400 (if you don’t itemize deductions).
  • Tax benefits that don’t apply to other filing statuses.

Married filing separately

How To Know When You Should File Jointly, Head Of Household, Or Single - Married filing seperately

Who can use it?

You can use this status if you are married and you and your spouse agree to file separate returns. In this case, you would each report your own income, deductions, credits, and exemptions on individual returns. In doing this you each take on responsibility for your own tax liability.

In many cases, couples who choose to file separately might pay higher returns at a higher tax rate and may also miss out on certain tax benefits. However, there are some situations where filing separately makes sense. 

Am I eligible to file as married filing separately?

The eligibility requirements are the same as for spouses that file jointly: 

  • Married as of the last day of the year (December 31).
  • You were not divorced, legally separated, or unmarried as of December 31 (there is an exception when it comes to widows/widowers – more on that below.) 

The benefits

In situations where both spouses earn high incomes and have a large amount of itemized deductions, it might make more sense to file separately. 

You may also consider filing separately if you’re in a situation where you don’t want to take on any liability for your spouse’s taxes. Perhaps you have your suspicions that your spouse is up to no good (tax evasion, cheating on their return) and you don’t want to be involved if crap hits the fan. By filing a separate return you won’t be held liable for your spouse’s wrong-doings. 

If your spouse owes money for missed child support or student loans, filing separately will protect your tax return. If you file jointly the IRS can come after your tax refund to pay off this debt. 

Head of household

How To Know When You Should File Jointly, Head Of Household, Or Single - Head of household

Who can use it?

This status is for those people who are single or unmarried and support dependents. The head of household status can lead to reduced taxable income and greater potential for benefits than filing as single.

Am I eligible to file as the head of my household?

To file as head of household you must meet the following criteria:

  • Unmarried as of the last day of the year (December 31).
  • Responsible for paying over half of the cost to keep up a home for the year.
  • Qualifying dependent has lived in the home with you for more than half of the year. There are two categories of dependents: a qualifying child and a qualifying relative. For more details on qualifying dependents check out the IRS’s website here

The benefits

The head of household status can lead to a lower tax rate and a higher standard deduction rate than a single filer.

In addition, heads of households need to reach a higher income threshold than singles before they owe income tax, as illustrated in the table below. 

Widow/widower

How To Know When You Should File Jointly, Head Of Household, Or Single - Widow

Who can use it?

This status is for widows/widowers with dependent children. If you qualify, you can file a joint tax return during the year of your spouse’s death.

For instance, if your spouse died in 2021 and you were eligible to file as married, you are still able to file a joint return for 2021.  You can then use the widow/widower status to file for the next two years following your spouse’s death. This means you can continue to file a joint return for two additional years

Am I eligible?

Some of the eligibility requirements to file as widow/widower include: 

  • You are the surviving spouse and have dependent children (children, stepchildren, adopted children). Click here for more information on who qualifies as a dependent.
  • You have not remarried.
  • You maintain the household. This means that you pay more than half of the household expenses. This must be the primary household for your dependent children. 

The benefits

Filing as a widow/widower allows you to retain the benefits associated with the married filing jointly status which can result in lower taxes, higher standard deduction, and additional benefits. 

What if I qualify for more than one status?

There are instances where you may qualify for more than one status. In this case, the IRS allows you to choose the status with the lower tax rate.

You’re advised to complete your taxes using the different statuses and then compare them to see which one provides a better rate. 

Tax rates for the different filing statuses

Now that you know what your filing status is, it’s time to see where you fall in the tax brackets. This determines the rate at which you’re taxed.

Here’s the tax rate for each filing status in the 2021 tax year:

Tax rateSingleMarried filing jointlyMarried filling separatelyHead of household
10%$0 to $9,950$0 to $19,900$0 – $9,950$0 to $14,200
12%$9,951 to $40,525
$19,901 to $81,050$9,951 to $40,525$14,201 to $54,200
22%$40,526 to $86,375$81,051 to $172,750$40,526 to $86,375$54,201 to $86,350

24%$86,376 to $164,925$172,751 to $329,850$86,376 to $164,925$86,351 to $164,900

32%$164,926 to $209,425$329,851 to $418,850$164,926 to $209,425

$164,901 to $209,400

35%$209,426 to $523,600$418,851 to $628,300$209,426 to $314,150

$209,401 to $523,600
37%$523,601 or more

$628,301 or more$314,151 or more

$523,601 or more

Summary

Knowing your tax filing status is important. It’s up to you to determine what status you qualify for and which one will benefit you the most. If you are having trouble determining whether or not you qualify for a certain status you can check out the IRS website which offers an interactive tool that will help you come to a conclusion. 

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About the author

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Jessica Martel is a freelance writer, professional researcher, and mother of two rambunctious little boys. She’s interested in all things related to personal finance, psychology, and parenting. You can connect with Jessica on her website The Financial Graduate, Linkedin, or Twitter.