If My Wife & I Are Separated, Should I Claim Head of Household?

by Beverly Bird

    Whether you claim head of household status when you file your tax return isn't so much an issue of "should": there are several advantages to doing so, and it's almost always in a taxpayer's best interest. The real question is whether the Internal Revenue Service will allow you to file this way. The IRS imposes several restrictive rules to head of household status, and not everyone qualifies.

    The Advantages

    The IRS offers two major advantages to those who qualify as head of household: your standard exemption will be $2,750 more as of 2012, and the tax brackets are more favorable. For example, if you earn $150,000 of taxable income and you file a separate married return, you fall in the 33 percent tax bracket. If you file as head of household, your tax bracket drops to 28 percent for the same income. Additionally, several tax-saving credits are only available to those who can file either joint married returns or as head of household.

    Separation Date

    If you and your spouse have informally separated but you're not yet divorced, your filing status options are married filing separately, married filing jointly, or head of household. If you're legally separated, you can only file a return as single or as head of household. In either case, you can only file as head of household if you parted ways before July 1 or during the previous tax year. You must have lived apart for at least the last six months of the year.

    Qualifying Dependents

    You must also support someone else to qualify as head of household. You must have at least one qualifying dependent. This can be your child if she lived with you at least half the year and is under age 19, or under 24 if she's a full-time student. She also can't contribute more than half of her own financial support. Other relatives can qualify as your dependents as well if they lived with you more than half the year, if you provided more than half their support, and if they meet certain income limits. Special rules apply to your parents.

    Supporting Your Household

    Even if you meet all other qualifications, you can't claim head of household status unless you pay the majority of your household's expenses – at least 51 percent. This includes things like rent or mortgage payments, utilities and groceries. It doesn't include transportation, vacations or other luxuries. If anyone else in your household contributes toward these expenses, you must factor in their share to determine what you contribute. Head of household filing status is exactly what it sounds like – you support your household, people depend on you, and they depend on you alone because you're no longer considered married.

    About the Author

    Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.

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