As a general rule, if you are legally married, you must file as either married filing jointly with your spouse or married filing separately. However, in some cases when you are living apart from your spouse and with a dependent, you can file as head of household instead. You will often save money over married filing separately with head of household status, which is designed for single parents and other people supporting family members on their own.
Usually, being married means that head of household isn't an option when you're filing for your taxes. However, if you meet the Internal Revenue Service's criteria for being "considered unmarried," then you can file as head of household, even if your divorce hasn't been finalized.
Understanding Tax Filing Status
When you file your federal tax return, you are asked to choose a filing status. The most common filing statuses are married filing jointly, used by married couples seeking to file a common joint return; single, used by unmarried taxpayers; and married filing separately, a status that allows married couples to each file a separate return.
Generally, if you are single in the eyes of the law, you must file as single, and if you are married, you must use one of the two married statuses. However, there are certain situations where you can file as head of household rather than single or rather than married filing separately.
The reason for doing so is to save money on taxes, so you should ensure that you choose the best filing status for you based on your circumstances. If you're eligible for multiple filing statuses, you may want to fill out a return using each possible status, such as married filing separately and head of household, and see which would bring you the biggest refund or smallest tax bill.
Head of Household Vs. Single
Head of household is a special tax status for people who are "considered unmarried" in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service and are taking care of dependents, often their own children. The rules for when you can file as head of household are somewhat complex, but in brief you must be either single or legally "considered unmarried" at the end of the year, have paid more than half the cost of keeping up your home and live with a qualified person, usually a dependent.
You will generally save money on taxes by getting more advantageous tax brackets and a larger standard deduction if you file as head of household rather than single or married filing separately. Note that if you choose a filing status you're not eligible for, you may owe penalties and back taxes to the IRS. Check with the IRS or with an accountant or tax preparer if you're unsure of the right filing status.
Some states have their own rules for filing as head of household or a similar status. Check your state's income tax information to see what options are available to you and how to qualify.
Being Considered Unmarried
The easiest way to meet the "considered unmarried" requirement to file as head of household is to be legally single. But you can be legally married and still meet the requirement under certain circumstances.
Generally, you must file a separate return from your spouse and live separately from your spouse for the last six months of the year. Temporary absences – such as for work, school, medical care or military service – don't count. You also must live with your dependent child, who can be your biological child, stepchild, adopted child or foster child. You also must have paid more than half the expenses of keeping up your home.
In some cases, you may be able to file as head of household if your child isn't legally your dependent for tax purposes, because the child's noncustodial parent can claim an exemption for your dependent instead. Check the IRS rules or with a tax preparer if you think you might fall into this category.
Keeping Up a Home
To file as head of household, you must pay more than half the expenses of keeping up your home. That includes things like a mortgage, property insurance, rent, property tax and utilities, as well as any repairs and maintenance paid for on the home.
You should also include household expenses such as food consumed in the home and miscellaneous household costs like cleaning supplies. You don't include the cost of your labor or any other household member's in the home, nor do you include the cost of clothing, schooling for household members, medical treatment, vacations or transportation. Don't include the rental value of the home you own and live in.
Who Is a Qualifying Person?
You can't claim head of household if you don't live with a qualifying person under the tax law. This means you generally can't be head of household if you live alone or only live with your spouse.
An exception is if you're taking care of an elderly parent who lives apart from you. You must pay more than half the cost of caring for your parent's main home or pay for him or her to live in a nursing home or home for the elderly.
Generally, a qualifying person must be your child or another close relative, such as a parent or sibling, who lives with you and is your dependent. In some cases, you can claim a single child even if they're not legally your dependent. You usually can't file as head of household based on living with an unrelated dependent, like a significant other, or a child you're not related to.
Rules for Death and Kidnapping
Special rules apply in the unfortunate events of your qualifying person dying during the year or your qualifying child being kidnapped.
If you paid for more than half the household expenses during the time a qualifying person who was born or died during the year was alive, you can claim them as a qualifying person and file as head of household. The same rule applies to a parent who passes away during the tax year.
If your child is missing and believed to be kidnapped by someone you and the child are not related to, and you would have qualified as head of household were it not for the kidnapping, you can file as head of household and continue to do so until the child turns 18 or is believed to have passed away. If the child returns, you will be able to claim head of household if the normal criteria apply, including for the year the child returns if he or she lives with you for more than half the year after returning.
Child and Dependent Tax Credits
If you're filing as head of household, you may also be eligible for various tax credits thanks to your dependent.
Generally, there's a $2,000 per year tax credit per dependent child under 16 and a $500 tax credit for other dependents. Part of the child tax credit is refundable, so you may be able to claim it even if you don't owe that much in tax. There is also a child and dependent care tax credit that can help cover the expenses of caring for a child under 13, an incapacitated spouse or parent or other dependents while you work. It can be worth up to $3,000.
Depending on your income and how many dependents you have, you may also be eligible for the earned income tax credit, which is geared toward low and moderate income working people. Some states offer additional tax credits, which reduce the tax you owe directly, or tax deductions, which reduce how much of your income is deductible, for parents and other caregivers.
- IRS: Publication 501 (2018), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- IRS: Earned Income Tax Credit
- NerdWallet: Child Tax Credit 2018: What’s New, and Requirements to Qualify
- Publication 501 (2019), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information | Internal Revenue Service
- eFile.com: IRS Head of Household Filing Status
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.