The single tax filing status is something of a catch-all basket. It's more or less the default status for taxpayers when none of the others fit. The single status isn’t particularly advantageous. The pivotal factor in determining whether you fall into this category is your marital status.
You can’t qualify as head of household if you’re unmarried but don’t have a dependent, so the IRS says you’re single. The same would apply if you’re unmarried and have a dependent, but you don’t pay more than half the expenses of keeping up your household for the year. You’re single.
Are You Married? It's Complicated
Only one day matters when you’re determining whether you're married according to tax rules: Dec. 31. Your marital status on the last day of the year dictates your tax filing status for the whole year.
Obviously, this isn't an issue if you’ve never married – you’re single unless you have a dependent and pay for more than half your household's expenses. The same applies if you were married but your marriage was annulled – it didn't end in divorce. This is a legal way of saying your marriage never happened in the first place.
You can’t file a married return if you have a divorce decree decree issued on or before Dec. 31. You can only file using the single status in this case, or as head of household if you qualify. You're also single if you’re not actually divorced yet, but you do have a legal separation order. This can’t be an order that's only in effect until your divorce is final or a separation agreement contract entered into between you and your spouse. It has to be a permanent separation order issued by a court. This prevents you from filing a married return.
So what if you’re neither divorced nor legally separated but you and your spouse haven’t lived together the last six months? You might qualify as head of household in this case. Otherwise, you’re married, not single, for federal tax filing purposes if you’re still residing in the same home with your spouse or have done so at any time after June 30.
The Standard Deduction
You’ll receive the lowest standard deduction if you must file using the single status, just $12,400 in the 2020 tax year, the return you'll file in 2021. This increases to $12,550 in tax year 2021. Compare that to the $18,350 that head of household filers can claim in 2020, and the $18,800 they'll be entitled to in 2021.
Married couples who file joint returns qualify for double the single amount: $24,800 in 2020, up to $25,100 in the 2021 tax year. But you’re limited to the same $12,400 deduction that single filers are entitled to for tax year 2020 if you’re married and file a separate return for some reason.
These numbers are indexed for inflation. They're adjusted a little from year to year to keep pace with the economy.
Tax Rates and Tax Brackets
The tax brackets for single filers won’t have you jumping for joy, either.
Let’s assume that you have a modest taxable income of $45,000 after you’ve claimed all the deductions you’re eligible for. This puts you in the 22 percent tax bracket on your income over $40,125 if you must use the single status for the 2020 tax year. The parameters change just a smidgen in 2021 – you can earn up to $40,525 before tipping over into the 22 percent bracket. But you’ll pay only a 12 percent top rate if you qualify as head of household, or if you’re married filing a joint return.
The income spans for tax brackets are tweaked annually as well. The percentage amounts don’t change – that literally requires an act of Congress – but the income that’s accommodated by each bracket can vary by a few hundred dollars from one year to the next.
Other Effects – The Alternative Minimum Tax
Of course, there’s a lot more involved with taxes than the standard deduction and tax brackets. You’ll take a bit of a hit in other areas as well if you must file as a single taxpayer.
First among these considerations is the alternative minimum tax, sometimes not-so-aptly referred to as the “mini tax.” It was put into place in the 1960s when Congress had an eye-popping revelation: The wealthiest American citizens were dodging taxes, sometimes not owing or paying any at all, by claiming just about every tax deduction available. The thinking was that because they earned more, they could therefore spend more on qualifying tax-deductible expenses, thus reducing their taxable incomes to zero.
And they did just that, so Congress passed the AMT. All filers are now entitled to an AMT exemption based on their filing status. Basically, the AMT won’t apply to you unless you earn more than this threshold. You must calculate your tax in two ways, once under the normal rules and again adding back certain deductions and applying sometimes higher rates, if you do owe more. Then you must pay whichever tax bill amounts to more.
Single taxpayers get a $79,900 exemption from the AMT in 2020, although it’s higher in 2021 at $73,600. But this increases to $113,400 in 2020 if you’re married and file a joint return. You don’t get a break with the AMT if you’re head of household – your AMT exemption is the same as it is for single filers.
The Earned Income Tax Credit
This is the tax credit that’s designed to put dollars back into the pockets of low-income and some middle-income taxpayers. The EITC is refundable, which means the IRS will kindly send you a check for the balance if there’s anything left over after it eliminates any tax you might owe for the year. It’s based on a few interlocking factors, including income and the number of child dependents you're supporting.
You can earn up to $15,820 in 2020 and remain eligible for this tax credit if you’re single and have no children, but you can earn up to $21,710 if you file a joint married return. Heads of household and single filers are treated equally for purposes of the earned income tax credit, too. Married taxpayers who file separate returns aren’t eligible for this tax credit at all.
Long-Term Capital Gains Tax Rates
This tax rate difference between filing statuses can be really significant. Single filers also pay more in the way of the long-term capital gains tax that can result from the sale of assets owned for longer than a year.
These tax rates have been assigned their own tax brackets since 2018. Again assuming that you have taxable income of $45,000 and you’re single, you’ll pay a 15 percent long-term capital gains rate in 2020. Not so if you’re head of household or married and filing a joint return. You’ll pay zero in capital gains tax at this income if you can use either of these filing statuses.
Can You Qualify as Head of Household?
You're probably ready to get down on one knee and ask the next stranger on the street to marry you at this point, but you might not have to do anything that drastic. Remember, the single filing status is what you’re stuck with if you don’t qualify for anything else.
You might qualify as head of household if you have at least one dependent – either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative – and if you pay at least half the cost of keeping up your home during the tax year.
Your qualifying child must live with you for more than half the year, such as because you’re the custodial parent, or another qualifying person must live with you for the entire year. But some qualifying persons who are actually relatives don’t have to live with you at all if you instead pay more than half the cost of keeping up their homes for the year. A parent would fall into this category.
The rules for this filing status are complex, so check with a tax professional if you think there’s any chance at all that you might qualify and save yourself some tax dollars.
When You Might Be a Qualifying Widow(er)
You have another option if you're single because your spouse has died. First, you’re not considered unmarried for the tax year in which they died. You can still file a joint married return for that year. Then you might be able to file as a qualifying widow(er) instead of as a single taxpayer if you have a qualifying dependent child and you don’t remarry.
This allows you to continue to claim the more beneficial tax perks of being married for an additional two years. Just as with the head of household status, however, you must pay more than half the cost of keeping up your dependent’s home during the tax year.
Can You Claim Your Child as a Dependent?
Having one or more dependents is the crucial difference between the single filing status and that of head of household or qualifying widow(er). This can get tricky because you can bet that your child’s other parent probably really wants to claim them as a dependent, too, if you're not married. You both want to avoid being single for tax filing purposes.
Unfortunately, only one taxpayer can claim each dependent, and the IRS has special rules in place if you and your ex can’t agree on who gets to claim your child. The IRS will make the decision for you based on these “tiebreaker” rules if you both try to claim them as a dependent.
First, your child must live with the qualifying parent for more than half the year, so this typically means that the child is claimed by the custodial parent. But if your child lived with both of you equally, a different rule applies. The IRS will give the right to claim her as a dependent to the parent with the higher adjusted gross income.
- IRS: Publication 501
- IRS.com: Filing Your Taxes After Divorce
- TurboTax: Tax Tips for Separated Couples
- IRS: Publication 504
- Credit Karma: Single Filing Status – A Guide for Solo Filers
- Bankrate: 2018-2019 Tax Brackets
- Bankrate: What Is the Long-Term Capital Gains Tax?
- IRS: IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2020
- IRS: IRS Announces Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2021
- Tax Foundation: 2020 Tax Brackets
- IRS: Revenue Procedure 2020-45
- IRS: Earned Income Tax Credit Income Limits and Maximum Credit Amounts
- IRS. "Module 5: Filing Status." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2020," Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- Tax Foundation. "2020 Tax Brackets," Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- Taxpayer Advocate Service. "Know How Getting Married Changes Your Tax Situation." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- IRS. "Publication 504 (2019), Divorced or Separated Individuals." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- Internal Revenue Service. "Choosing the Correct Filing Status," Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
- IRS. "Publication 501 (2019), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information." Accessed Feb. 17, 2020.
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.