Qualifying Widow(er): How to File Taxes After the Death of a Spouse

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 married filing jointly couples are entitled to, at least for that year. 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 dies in 2020, you can file a joint return with them for that tax year, then you might be able to claim the qualifying widow(er) status for tax years 2021 and 2022.

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 2020 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.

You Must Maintain 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, she can live away at college or spend the summer at camp. The point is that she’ll return to your residence after this time away. Your home is still her 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 she was 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 another 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 ​$18,650​ as of the 2020 tax year. A qualifying widow(er) is entitled to claim the ​$24,800standard deduction amount that’s available to married taxpayers in the same year, a ​difference of $6,150​ shaved off your taxable income. A single taxpayer without a qualifying child gets only a ​$12,400​ standard deduction.

Standard deductions increase to ​$25,100​ and ​$18,800​ respectively in the 2021 tax year for tax returns to be filed in 2022.

Another Benefit – Tax Brackets

A head of household filer is subject to the ​22 percenttax bracket when they reach an income of ​$53,700​ in 2020. A qualifying widow(er) can earn ​up to $80,250​ before hitting this tax rate. The ​24 percent tax bracket​ begins at incomes of ​$85,500​ for head of household filers, but not until incomes of ​$171,050​ for qualifying widow(er)s. And again, single filers without dependents come in last, at incomes of ​$40,125​ and ​$85,525​ respectively.

These thresholds are adjusted for inflation. Changes for the 2021 tax year include ramping the 24 percent bracket ​up to $86,350​ for head of household filers and to ​$172,750​ for qualifying widow(er)s.