Choosing the correct marital status when filing your income tax return is a key part of determining how much tax you’ll have to pay. If you don’t neatly fit into only one filing category, the IRS gives you a break – you’re allowed to file under the marital status that results in paying a lower tax. Regardless of your marital status during most of the tax year, you must file your return based on whether you were single or married on Dec. 31.
If you’re married, you can only choose the single filing status if you live in a state with laws that confer single status on legally separated individuals.
Determine Your Legal Filing Status
Some states consider you “unmarried” before you are actually divorced if a court grants you a decree of separation maintenance. The IRS honors state laws by allowing you to claim the single status on your tax return (or head of household) if your state laws qualify you for this status.
Even if you receive a decree of separation maintenance on Dec. 31, you can choose the single filing status for that tax year. And even though you may consider yourself unmarried if you're separated from your spouse, you must still file as married unless your state recognizes legal separations.
You may also file as single if you or your spouse is a nonresident alien and the spouse who is the nonresident alien has not been formerly treated as a resident alien.
W-4 Withholding Exceptions
If you look at Line 3 of your W-4 (Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate), you’ll see three boxes from which to choose your tax withholding rate: single, married and married but withhold at higher single rate. By checking this third box, you are not filing as a single person; you’re filing as a married person who wishes more tax withheld from each paycheck than if you filed as married.
Some taxpayers choose this third option when they find that the withholding from each paycheck is not enough to meet their tax liability when they file their returns. This typically happens when both spouses work and each has similar incomes.
Adjusting Your Withholding Amount
Regardless of your marital status, the IRS recommends performing a "paycheck checkup" to make sure you are minimizing your tax liability. Along with marital status, your income, number of dependents and allowable deductions are some of the key pieces of the tax liability puzzle that determine your tax liability.
Visit IRS.gov and enter "tax withholding calculator" in the search field. Follow the prompts to access this online tool.
2019 Tax Law Standard Deductions
If you’re still legally married but separated from your spouse, you can file your tax return as “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately" unless you live in a state that recognizes your legally separated status as single. The standard deductions for tax year 2019 are $24,400 (married filing jointly and qualifying widow[er]), $12,200 (married filing separately and single) and $18,350 (head of household).
If you’re unsure of which choice is best for you, you can visit IRS.gov to review or download the checklists in the instructions for IRS 1040.
2018 Tax Law Standard Deductions
The standard deductions for tax year 2019 are $24,000 (married filing jointly and qualifying widow[er]), $12,000 (married filing separately and single) and $18,000 (head of household).
- IRS: Form W-4 (2019)
- IRS: Publication 505 (2019), Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax
- Forbes.com: New: IRS Announces 2018 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts and More
- IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status
- IRS: Publication 17 (2018), Your Federal Income Tax
- IRS: Paycheck Checkup
- IRS: Tax Withholding
Victoria Lee Blackstone was formerly with Freddie Mac’s mortgage acquisition department, where she funded multi-million-dollar loan pools for primary lending institutions, worked on a mortgage fraud task force and wrote the convertible ARM section of the company’s policies and procedures manual. Currently, Blackstone is a professional writer with expertise in the fields of mortgage, finance, budgeting and tax. She is the author of more than 2,000 published works for newspapers, magazines, online publications and individual clients.