When you file your federal income taxes, you're asked to indicate your filing status. While some statuses, like single or married filing jointly, are easy to understand, the head of household tax status is a little bit more complex. A number of Internal Revenue Service rules determine when you can and can't claim this status.
If you are legally married but your spouse didn't live in your house for the last half of the tax year and you have a child who did live in your house more than half a year, you may be eligible to claim head of household tax status.
Understanding the Head of Household Rules
Filing as head of household can provide a larger standard deduction and lower tax rates than filing as single or married filing separately, so it can be to your advantage to file this way if you're allowed to do so. Generally, the filing status is designed for people who are unmarried and supporting dependents, such as children or elderly parents. You can still be "considered unmarried" in the eyes of the IRS even if you are legally married if you meet certain requirements.
To file as head of household, you must be legally unmarried or considered unmarried on the last day of a tax year, you must pay more than half of the expenses for keeping up your home and you must live with a qualifying person for more than half the year. Some exceptions apply that may allow you to claim the status if you don't meet all those requirements.
If you are legally married, you can still be considered unmarried in the eyes of the IRS if you didn't live with your spouse for the last half of the year, you file separate returns and you live with your child, including a stepchild or foster child, who you can claim as a dependent. There are some cases where you may still be able to meet the requirement if a noncustodial parent can claim the child, rather than you.
When considering the expenses of keeping up your home, you can consider maintenance, mortgage interest, rent payments and household expenses such as food consumed in the home. The rules around who is a qualifying person can be complex, but they generally refer to a relative that you could claim as a dependent on your taxes, whether or not you do so.
Exceptions to the General Rules
Exceptions to the rule that a qualifying person must live with you more than half the year apply if you're supporting a parent in his or her own home or an old age home or if you or the person you support is away temporarily during the year, such as for school, medical care, business trips or military service.
If someone is born or dies during the year, you are allowed to consider only the time in which he or she is alive, rather than the entire year.
If you have a child who has been kidnapped, and law enforcement believes the kidnapper is not related to you or the child, you may also be able to claim head of household status if you would have been able to do so if the child had not been abducted.
Advantages in Tax Year 2018
As in previous years, heads of household pay lower tax rates for the same amount of taxable income than single people or married people filing separately.
Additionally, heads of household are eligible for larger standard deductions. For tax year 2018, heads of household can claim an $18,000 standard deduction, compare to $12,000 for single people and those who are married and filing separately. Married couples filing jointly can claim $24,000.
Even if you itemize your deductions, it can still be worth filing as head of household thanks to the lower tax brackets.
Head of Household Rules for Tax Year 2017
Heads of household can also claim lower tax rates and a higher standard deduction in tax year 2017. In that year, single people and those married filing singly get a standard deduction of $6,350. Married couples filing jointly can claim twice that, or $12,700. Heads of household may claim a standard deduction of $9,350.
- IRS.gov: Publication 17 (2018), Your Federal Income Tax
- eFile: IRS Head of Household Filing Status
- IRS: Publication 501 (2018), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- 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.