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Filing Basics

Tax Filing Status

Determining your filing status is the first step in determining your filing requirements, standard deduction and correct tax. Your filing status will usually be determined by whether you are married or unmarried.

Your marital status on the last day of the tax year determines your status for the entire year. If you were separated or divorced under a divorce or separate maintenance decree on the last day of the year, you are considered unmarried for the entire year. State law governs whether you are considered married, legally separated or divorced under decree.

You are considered married if any of the following are true:

  • You are married and living together as husband and wife.
  • You are living together in a common-law marriage, where recognized in the state you live in or in the state where the common law marriage began.
  • You are married and living apart but not legally separated by a divorce or separate maintenance decree.
  • You are separated under a temporary decree of divorce.
  • The IRS also recognizes same-sex marriages, provided the marriage took place in a location where it was recognized as a legal marriage. Once recognized as legally married, the taxpayers may file as married, even if the location they now live in does not recognize the marriage as legal.

If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the entire year. If you remarried before the end of the year, you can file jointly with your new spouse and file a married filing separately return for your deceased spouse.

There are five filing statuses:

Single

You can only file as single if you are unmarried or considered unmarried for the entire year. If you claim dependents as an exemption, you may be able to file as head of household, which usually results in a lower tax liability than filing as single.

Married Filing Jointly

If you are married or are considered married, and you and your spouse agree, you can file a joint return. Filing jointly usually results in a lower tax than filing separately.

If you and your spouse elect to file jointly, you both can be held responsible, separately or together, for the tax and any interest or penalty due on your return.

Married Filing Separately

If you are married or are considered married and you and your spouse do not agree to file jointly, you can file married filing separately. If you file a separate return you generally only report your own income, credits, exemptions and deductions. Filing separate returns usually results in a higher combined tax.

Head of Household

Filing as head of household usually results in a lower tax liability than filing singly or married filing separately. You can file as head of household if you are single or unmarried, paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home, and had a qualifying child or qualifying relative that lived with you in the home for more than half the year. But if the qualifying relative is your parent, he or she does not have to live with you. You must be able to claim an exemption for the parent, and you must pay more than half of the cost of the parent's household expenses.

If you are married you can file as head of household if you can be considered unmarried. All of the following must be true:

  • You and your spouse file separately.
  • You pay more than 50% of the expenses of maintaining the household.
  • Your spouse did not live in the home for the last 6 months of the year.
  • The household is the principal home of a qualifying person or child.
  • You can claim an exemption for a qualifying person or child.

You can also file as head of household if your spouse was a nonresident alien at any time during the year. However, your spouse does not count as a qualifying person. You must have another person and meet all the other tests to qualify for head of household.

Qualifying Widow(er)

If your spouse died during the year, you generally can file married filing jointly. For two years after the death of your spouse you can file as qualifying widow(er) if all of the following are true:

  • You did not remarry.
  • You qualified to file married filing jointly with your spouse in the year your spouse died.
  • You pay more than 50% of the expenses of maintaining the household.
  • The household is the principal home of a qualifying child.
  • You can claim an exemption for a qualifying child.