Tax Prep & Planning

Filing Status 101 – Should You File a Single, Joint, Separate, or Head of Household Tax Return?

You may be advised to choose your filing status when completing your tax return – as if you get to pick the one you like best from several options. In reality, you may or may not have a choice. For the most part, your filing status represents your marital status and sometimes the presence of dependents in your home. In turn, your filing status affects your tax bracket and other factors that ultimately go into your tax bottom line.

Here then, from most to least advantageous, are the five filing statuses and who may use them:

1 – Married filing jointly (MFJ) –

This is usually the most advantageous filing status because it has the most favorable tax brackets (meaning that more of your income is taxed at lower rates), highest standard deduction, best phaseouts (meaning you get to keep more of your deductions and credits) and other factors that mean you’ll pay less tax. To file MFJ for 2017, you and your spouse must have been legally married at December 31, whether or not you’ve lived together or have children. You may also use this status if your spouse passed away during 2017 and you did not remarry before the end of the year.

2 – Qualifying widow / widower (QW) –

This filing status has nearly all of the same tax advantages as MFJ, but more requirements. You may use the QW status in 2017 if your spouse passed away in 2015 or 2016, you filed jointly in the year of death, have not remarried, have a dependent son or daughter who lived in your home for all of 2017, and paid more than half the cost of maintaining that home. If you don’t quite meet all of these requirements, you may be able to file as head of household.

3 – Head of household (HOH) –

Less advantageous than MFJ, but more beneficial than the next two filing statuses, you may use the HOH status if you were unmarried in 2017, have a qualifying dependent such as a child, grandchild, or certain other relatives in your home, and paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home for that dependent. (You may file as HOH if the dependent was your parent, even if your parent didn’t live with you.)

Here, unmarried means that you never married or that you were married but are now divorced or widowed and don’t qualify for QW status. In limited circumstances, you can be “considered unmarried” even if you were still legally married at the end of 2017 if you did not live with your spouse at any time during the second half of the year and your qualifying dependent is a son, daughter, or eligible foster child.

4 – Single –

You must use this status in 2017 if you were not married on December 31, do not have any dependents in your home, and do not qualify for any of the “higher” filing statuses.

5 – Married filing separately (MFS) –

This is the least advantageous status, especially for higher income filers, because more income is taxed at higher rates. Deductions and credits phaseout earlier and you may even be ineligible for some tax benefits, such as education tax credits. Why would you ever pick this status? If you are legally married, your spouse does not wish to file jointly, and you do not qualify to file as head of household, your only choice is to file MFS. If that’s the case, you may not select HOH or single filing status instead.

There are times when joint filers prefer to file separately. For instance, for any number of reasons, you may wish to keep all of your finances separately, even if it means paying more tax. Keep in mind that when you file jointly, you are both liable – as a couple and as individuals – for everything that is on the tax return.

We’ve mentioned just some of the requirements and relative advantages of each filing status. If you’re in doubt, it’s a good idea to speak with a tax professional to make sure to select the correct status or, if you do have a choice, to select the most beneficial status. Get matched with an advisor nearest you.

Insights Icon

Get Matched Today

Find Your Advisor