The Internal Revenue Service isn’t without compassion. The U.S. tax code allows a surviving spouse to file a joint married return with her deceased spouse for the tax year in which he died. You’ll still be eligible to claim all the tax breaks that you were entitled to when you were married filing jointly, at least for that year. And the IRS will let you claim those tax breaks for two additional years if you’re eligible for the qualifying widow(er) filing status.
The Qualifying Rules
Using the qualifying widow(er) filing status is only possible for two years. If your spouse died in 2021, you can file a joint return with them for the 2021 tax year, then you might be able to claim the qualifying widow(er) status for tax years 2022 and 2023.
You can’t remarry during this time, but you can file a joint married return with your new spouse if you do. Otherwise, you’ll revert to either single or head of household filing status after two years, depending on whether you can qualify as head of household.
You’ll Need at Least One Dependent
This tax filing status is technically referred to as “Qualifying Widow(er) With Dependent Child.” You won’t qualify if you don’t have a dependent child, and the rules are pretty specific. A qualifying adult dependent doesn’t count.
The child must be biological, adopted or your stepchild, and they'll qualify even if they're born or die during the tax year. A foster child doesn't qualify, although he can help you qualify for head of household status, which also requires that you have a dependent.
And here’s a loophole: You don’t actually have to be able to claim the child as your dependent on your tax return. The IRS simply requires that you could have done so, except he earned more than $4,300 as of the 2021 tax year, he filed a joint tax return with his spouse, or you can be claimed as a dependent by someone else, all of which would disqualify them as your dependent for general purposes.
Read more: Claiming Dependents for Your Taxes
You Must Remain Your Child’s Household
Your qualifying child must also live with you all year, although what the IRS calls “temporary absences” won’t disqualify you. In other words, they can live away at college or spend the summer at camp. The point is that they’ll return to your residence after this time away. Your home is still their home base.
You must also have paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year – the home where your child lives with you. This rule is the same as what’s required for the head of household status. You must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up your home during the entire time they were alive if your child was born or died during the tax year.
Benefits of the Qualifying Widow(er) Status
Filing your tax return as a qualifying widower effectively extends the same joint married tax breaks and standard deduction for an additional two tax years. This is the highest standard deduction available, and the tax brackets are much kinder, too, better even than being able to file as head of household.
A head of household filer is entitled to a standard deduction of $18,800 as of the 2021 tax year, the return you'll file in 2021. A qualifying widow(er) is entitled to claim the $25,100 standard deduction amount that’s available to married taxpayers in the same year, a difference of $6,300 shaved off your taxable income. A single taxpayer without a qualifying child gets only a $12,550 standard deduction in 2021.
Standard deductions increase to $25,900 and $19,400 respectively in the 2022 tax year for tax returns to be filed in 2023.
Another Benefit – Tax Brackets
A head of household filer is subject to the 22 percent tax bracket when they reach an income of $54,201 in 2021. A qualifying widow(er) can earn up to $81,051 before hitting this tax rate. The 24 percent tax bracket begins at incomes of $86,351 for head of household filers, but not until incomes of $172,751 for qualifying widow(er)s. And again, single filers without dependents come in last, at an income of $40,526 for the 22 percent bracket, although the disparity here levels out with the 24 percent bracket.
These thresholds are all adjusted for inflation.
- IRS: Publication 501
- IRS: Filing Status
- Bankrate: Tax-Filing Status After Death of Spouse
- IRS: Important Changes for 2019
- IRS: Revenue Procedure 2020-45
- TaxAct: Filing Status – Qualifying Widow(er) With Dependent Child
- IRS: IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2021
- Tax Foundation: 2021 Tax Brackets
- IRS: IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022
Beverly Bird has been writing professionally for over 30 years. She is also a paralegal, specializing in areas of personal finance, bankruptcy and estate law. She writes as the tax expert for The Balance.