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Single & Head of Household (Filing Status)

Today we’re going to discuss the four major filing statuses of your tax return – single, head of household, married filing jointly and married filing separately. If you’ve ever filled out your tax return, chances are you’ve had to decide which of these four applied to you. The decision really is between single vs. head of household or married filing jointly vs. married filing separately. A married couple, in general, will not file as a head of household and unmarried individuals cannot file jointly or separately as there is no one to file with!

This post will cover the decision process for picking single or head of household with a post covering married filing jointly vs. married filing separately to come in the afternoon.

Here’s one important protip about marital status and taxes: Your marital status on the last day of the year (December 31st) determines your marital status for the entire year. This is true for a lot of “status” related items – if your child is born on December 31st, they can be claimed on that year’s return. If you are unmarried, you have the option of picking single or head of household. If you are married, you must pick either married filing jointly or married filing separately.

Head of Household

The rules for claiming the Head of Household is very specific because it has to define what a household is (and then, of course, what makes you the “Head” of that household). The definition of the head of household from IRS Publication 501 [3] is remarkably specific and you must be married or ‘considered unmarried’ for the year, paid more than half the upkeep for a home, and a “qualifying person” has lived with you for more than half the year, unless that qualifying person is a parent.

How can you be married and not file married filing jointly or separately? “Considered unmarried” is pretty broad and can mean that you are actually unmarried, legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree, or you are still married but lived apart for at least the last six months of the year. Domestic partners are considered unmarried for federal tax purposes.

Your reward for being a Head of Household is a slightly larger standard deduction (HOH is $8,500 vs. $5,800 for single filers for 2010) and slightly more favorable tax rates [4]:

Tax Bracket Single Head of Household
10% Bracket $0 – $8,500 $0 – $17,000 $0 – $12,150
15% Bracket $8,500 – $34,500 $12,150 – $46,250
25% Bracket $34,500 – $83,600 $46,250 – $119,400
28% Bracket $83,600 – $174,400 $119,400 – $193,350
33% Bracket $174,400 – $379,150 $193,350 – $379,150
35% Bracket $379,150+ $379,150+

One final note worth mentioning – if you are considered unmarried for HoH, you may still be considered married for the earned income credit so double check that.

Single Filer

If you are unmarried, live alone (or with someone a cousin or beyond in relation), and have no dependents, you are most definitely a single filer. 🙂 If you were once married and are now divorced or legally separated (as measured by the last day of the year), you can file as a single filer. If you were widowed and didn’t remarry before the end of the year, you are considered single as well. If you can file as Head of Household, do so because the tax brackets are larger.

Fortunately, if you are a single filer, you know this for sure and you don’t have all the complicated decision making a married person might have (married filing jointly? or separately?)!