Depending on your marital status, you might be eligible for one or more Internal Revenue Service filing statuses when you fill out your tax return. Generally, if you are married, you can legally file as married filing separately or married filing jointly. In some cases, you may be able to file as single or head of household if you are legally married but separated.
If you are married, you can legally file a single tax return only if separated. You may also be able to file as head of household if this is the case and you have dependents.
Married But Not Living Together Filing Status
Generally, if you are a legally married couple, you can choose to file your taxes as jointly or separately, but you must file as married. Which status you choose can depend on factors in your relationship as well as factors in the tax code that may cause you to pay more or less filing one way or another. A tax preparer, lawyer or accountant can help you make this decision, and you may be able to compare the tax ramifications of both options using paper tax forms or tax software.
If you are not married, including if you're divorced or widowed, you can file as single. You can file as single if you're legally separated under your state's laws. If your marriage is annulled, meaning it is legally declared to have never been valid, you are required to amend any tax returns within the statute of limitations for filing tax returns where you filed as married. Use IRS Form 1040X for this purpose.
If you are single and supporting the majority of the cost of keeping up a home for yourself and someone else, known as a qualifying person, you can file as head of household. This filing status is often used by single parents supporting their children or people supporting elderly relatives. There is a filing status chart in the IRS's Publication 501 to help you determine if someone in your life is a qualifying person.
In some cases, if you're legally married you may be able to file as head of household. Generally, this applies if you live apart from your spouse for at least the last half of the tax year, paid for more than half of your household expenses for the year and lived with your child, stepchild or foster child for more than half the year. For the purpose of spouses living apart or living with children, temporary absences such as for school, business trips or medical care don't count.
Surviving Spouse Filing Status
If your spouse passes away, special filing status rules may apply. Generally, you can file jointly with your deceased spouse in the year they pass away if you were otherwise qualified to do so.
For the next two years, you may be able to file as a qualifying widow or widower if you are unmarried, you have a dependent child or stepchild who lives with you and you pay the majority of the household expenses. In that case, you will get the tax benefits of filing as married filing jointly even though your spouse is deceased.
2018 Tax Law Changes
The tax law changes for 2018 don't directly affect the rules around marital status, but they do change various deductions and tax brackets, generally lowering taxes. This may affect what status you use to file depending on your circumstances. For example, if you choose to file married filing jointly, your standard deduction is $18,000. Married filing separately and single filers have a deduction of $12,000.
2017 Tax Laws
If you're filing for tax year 2017 or earlier, use the tax forms and rules for those years, even if you're amending a return later on due to an annulment or otherwise. Generally, tax rates are higher for 2017 and previous years than in 2018.
- IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status
- IRS: Publication 501 (2018), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- IRS: Instructions for Form 1040X
- eFile: Qualifying Widow or Qualifying Widower Tax Filing Status
- Forbes: New: IRS Announces 2018 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More
- eFile: Married Filing Jointly Tax 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.