Some of the statuses to file taxes are relatively straightforward. If you're single, you file single. If you're married, you're either filing joint returns or separate returns. One of the more complex ways to file is as head of household, which is generally intended for filing taxes as a single mother or father or someone else supporting a family while unmarried.
There are a number of requirements to file as head of household, but being employed is not one of them. You're also generally eligible for claiming a child on taxes when unemployed if he or she is legally your dependent.
Who Can File as Head of Household?
You can file as head of household if you were considered unmarried on the last day of the year, you paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home, and a qualifying person lived with you for more than half the year. Some exceptions apply to the last requirement.
To be considered unmarried in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service, you can be single, divorced, widowed or legally separated, or you can meet a more complex test. If you are legally married but aren't filing a joint return with your spouse, you didn't live together the last half of the year, paid more than half the costs of keeping up the house and you lived with your child or children (including stepchildren and foster children), whom are eligible to be claimed as your dependents, then you can be considered unmarried.
To the IRS, the cost of keeping up a home includes rent, repairs, mortgage interest, insurance, property tax, utilities and household expenses including food consumed in the home.
A qualifying person is generally either your single child, regardless of whether or not you can claim him or her as a dependent, or another relative, including a married child, if you're eligible to claim him or her as a dependent. A married child can also count if the only reason you couldn't claim him or her is because you can be claimed as someone's dependent. There's no requirement that you be employed to file as head of household.
Filing as head of household can often make you eligible for a lower tax bracket and a higher standard deduction than filing as single, so it can be to your advantage to do so if possible.
Exceptions to the Rules
While a qualifying person generally has to live with you more than half the year to qualify you to be head of household, there are some exceptions.
- If the qualifying person is your parent, and you pay more than half the cost of keeping up his or her home, or the cost of keeping him or her in a home for the elderly, you can still qualify as head of household.
- Temporary absences, such as for business, vacations, education or military service, also don't count against you.
- If someone would be a qualifying person but they were born or died during the year, you can look only at the portion of the year in which the person was alive to determine if you lived together more than half of that period.
Other exceptions may apply in other situations. Different states may also have their own rules for filing as head of household or a similar status.
Filing as Head of Household in 2018
If you file as head of household in 2018, you can claim $18,000 as a standard deduction, compared to $12,000 for single or married filing separately. If you're married and filing jointly, the couple gets a $24,000 standard deduction. Marginal tax brackets for heads of household are also more generous than for single filers.
Filing as Head of Household in 2017
For tax year 2017, the standard deduction for filing head of household is $9,350, compared to $6,350 for single filers and married people filing separately. Married couples filing jointly can deduct $12,700.
Tax brackets are also more generous than for single filers, so it can be advantageous to file that way even if you don't take the standard deduction.
- IRS: Publication 501 (2018), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- eFile: IRS Head of Household Filing Status
- IRS: Filing Status 2
- Forbes: New: IRS Announces 2018 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More
- Forbes: IRS Announces 2017 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More
Steven Melendez is an independent journalist with a background in technology and business. He has written for a variety of business publications including Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal, Innovation Leader and Ad Age. He was awarded the Knight Foundation scholarship to Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.