Tax Filing Status Single Vs. Head of Household

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If you’re single, it may naturally follow that you’re also the head of your household. But for tax purposes, there’s a distinct difference between the single status and the head-of-household status. The Internal Revenue Service provides this distinction to give taxpayers who qualify as the financial provider for a household, which includes qualifying dependents, some relief from their tax liabilities. If you’re deciding between filing single vs. head of household (or even another filing status) your lowest tax liability among all eligible categories will be the deciding factor.

IRS Filing Statuses

Marital status is a starting point for determining which of five IRS tax filing statuses apply to you:

  • Single. Generally, you’ll file single if you are not married, or if you’re divorced or have a legal separation that was granted under state law.
  • Head of Household. Typically, taxpayers who file under this status are unmarried, although there are exceptions. Head-of-household filers are financially responsible for themselves as well as other eligible dependents.
  • Married Filing Jointly. You can use this status if you’re legally married in the state where you reside, or if you were legally married in another state, and you file a joint return with your spouse.
  • Married Filing Separately. Even if you’re married and living together, you can still choose to file separate tax returns. Some couples choose this filing status for personal reasons, and others choose to file separately because of a greater tax benefit.
  • Qualifying Widow(er) with Dependent Child. You may choose this filing status if your spouse died during the past two years, you have a dependent child (or children) and you meet the eligibility requirements for this status.

Importance of Choosing Correct Status

You may discover that you’re eligible to file your tax return under more than one filing status. The IRS advocates choosing the filing status that requires you to pay the lowest amount of income tax. Sometimes the difference between filing single and head of household, for example, can mean a big dollar difference in what you owe. You may want to figure your tax return under all statuses that apply to you just to make sure you're filing the best way.

And if you’re unsure of which marital status applies to you because you’re recently married or divorced, it’s your marital status on December 31 that determines your marital status for the entire year. For example, if you were single for the entire year but were married on the last day of the year, you’re considered married for the entire tax year.

Single Filing Status

“Single” covers a lot of territories including never married, legally separated, divorced or widowed. What may seem like a gray area to you is black-and-white to the IRS. For example, you may consider yourself single if you’re separated, particularly if you have lived apart from your spouse for a long time. But if you do not have a legal separation, you’re considered married in the eyes of the IRS, so you won't be able to file your tax return as single.

On the flip side, you may consider yourself married to someone, but if your marriage is not legally recognized in the state where you live or the state (or foreign country) where you may have had a symbolic wedding ceremony, the IRS considers you unmarried. It's only if you are unmarried on the last day of the year, and you do not qualify for any other filing status, that you can check the single status on your tax return.

Head-of-Household Filing Status

This filing status casts a wide net over various household situations, and it comes with a list of eligibility requirements. You’re eligible for this category if you can pass all three of these tests:

  1. You were not married (or "considered unmarried") as of Dec. 31.
  2. You paid more than half the household expenses for the tax year.
  3. For more than half the tax year, a qualifying person also lived in the house with you, with the exception of a dependent parent who does not have to live with you. 

"Considered Married" Exceptions

For the purpose of filing as head-of-household, you may be "considered unmarried" (even if you're legally married) if you can pass all these tests:

  1. You do not file a joint return with your spouse.
  2. You paid more than half of your household expenses by “keeping up the home” during the tax year. (“Keeping up the home” include expenses such as rent, utilities, repairs, food that’s eaten in the home and mortgage interest.)
  3. Your spouse lived apart from you for the last six months of the year, excluding temporary absences.
  4. The qualifying person (or persons) who lived with you is your child, stepchild or foster child and lived in your household for more than half of the year, excluding temporary absences.

Qualifying Person Eligibility Rules

You may be able to claim a non-relative member of your household as a dependent (for example, your roommate); but for the purposes of filing as head of household, a qualifying person must be your child, parent or certain relatives that meet IRS guidelines.

Qualifying Child Criteria:

  • A biological child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling, half-sibling or a descendant, such as a child or grandchild, of any of these relatives.
  • A biological child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, stepsibling, half-sibling or a descendant, such as a child or grandchild, or any of these relatives (regardless of age) who is permanently and totally disabled.  
  • The child must live in the same household with you for more than six months during the tax year.
  • The child must be younger than you.
  • The child must be younger than age 19 at the end of the tax year (or younger than 24 if the child is a full-time student).
  • The child cannot pay for more than half his living expenses for the tax year.

Other Qualifying Relatives Criteria:

  • Your mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, mother-in-law, father-in-law, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law.

IRS Tiebreaker Test

More than one person may be eligible to claim the same qualifying dependent for the purposes of filing as head of household, but only one person can actually claim a qualifying dependent. In these cases, Publication 501 (Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information) defines the IRS “tiebreaker rules” to determine which person passes the tiebreaker test to claim the dependent(s) in question. Visit IRS.gov/forms and search for this publication by number to view, download or print it.

Head-of-Household Tax Benefits

Generally, if you’re eligible to file under the head-of-household status instead of single or married filing separately, you’ll pay less income tax. In particular, many single parents find their greatest tax benefit by filing in this category. Taxpayers filing as head of household can also take a higher standard deduction than taxpayers who file as single. For the 2018 tax year, the standard deduction when filing as head of household is $18,000 while the standard deduction when filing as single is only $12,000. For the 2019 tax year, the standard deduction increases to $18,350 (head of household) and $12,200 (single).

IRS Help With Filing Status

If you're unsure of the best filing status to choose, the IRS offers tax software that helps not only with electronically filing your tax return but also choosing the filing status that's right for you. You can use this free service by visiting IRS.gov and clicking "Free File" on its homepage.