Your filing status helps determine how much income tax you pay

  • Your filing status, along with your income, helps determine your tax liability.
  • Single, head of household, married filing separately, married filing jointly, and qualifying widow(er) are the five filing statuses.
  • This article was reviewed for accuracy and clarity by Michele Cagan, an expert on Personal Finance Insider’s tax review board
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How much you pay — and legally owe — in taxes is partially determined by your filing status.

There are three filing statuses for non-married taxpayers — single, head of household, and qualifying widow(er). Married taxpayers can either file taxes jointly or separately.

Each filing status has its own tax rate, which applies to various tax brackets (married filing jointly and qualifying widow(er) use the same tax table); these represent the rates at which the individual or couple’s income is taxed as they reach certain thresholds. The seven federal tax rates range from 10% to 37%.

Because America has a progressive tax system, the tax rate steadily increases as that person’s income increases. It’s not a monumental change when people jump from one tax bracket to another.

Still, choosing the right filing status for your tax situation is crucial. It helps you qualify for certain deductions and credits, and determine your standard deduction amount and correct tax liability.

When you start a new job, you’ll fill out a W-4 and select a filing status to let your employer know how much money to withhold from each paycheck for taxes. And when it comes time to file your tax return, you choose a filing status again to ensure the amount of taxes you paid and the amount of your total tax bill are the same.

You can file an updated W-4 at any time. Marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, and buying a home are common examples of life events that require a change in your W-4, as these life events affect how much you pay in taxes.

What is my filing status?

Below are the guidelines for choosing a tax filing status. If you’re still unsure, the IRS also offers a handy questionnaire that takes about five minutes to fill out.

Single

Non-married taxpayers who are not claimed as a dependent on another person’s return should file as single. If you were previously married and your divorce was finalized before the last day of the year, you’ll file as single or head of household for the year the divorce was finalized.

Single taxpayers are eligible for a standard deduction of $12,400 for the 2020 tax year and $12,550 for the 2021 tax year.

Married filing jointly (MFJ)

Couples who were married by December 31 are eligible to file a joint return for that tax year. In general, there are a few major benefits to married filing jointly, including access to valuable tax credits, a larger standard deduction, a larger capital loss deduction, and combined incomes, potentially bringing a higher earner into a lower tax bracket.

The standard deduction for MFJ is $24,800 for the 2020 tax year and $25,100 for the 2021 tax year.

Married filing separately (MFS)

Married filers can file separate tax returns where they report only their own income, deductions, and credits. But their tax returns are still connected in some ways. For instance, if one spouse itemizes deductions, the other must, too.

Tax law imposes some other notable limitations on married couples who file separately. They are excluded from the earned income credit, dependent care credit, education-related credits, and the student-loan interest deduction. Also, the income threshold for the highest tax rate is lower for MFS than for MFJ and single filers. 

The standard deduction for MFS is the same as for single filers: $12,400 for the 2020 tax year and $12,550 for the 2021 tax year.

Head of household

Non-married individuals may choose to file as head of household if they meet certain guidelines. First, they must have a qualifying child or dependent. This includes a grandchild, stepchild, foster child, adopted child, sister, brother, step sibling, and under special circumstances, a parent, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle, or in-law.

The taxpayer must pay more than half of the costs of running the household where the qualifying child or dependent resided for at least half of the year.

Taxpayers “considered unmarried” may also file as head of household if their spouse lived outside the home for the last six months of the year (with no plan to return) and they file separate tax returns.

A person who files as head of household may claim a standard deduction of $18,650 for tax year 2020 and $18,800 for tax year 2021.

Qualifying widow(er)

An individual whose spouse dies is still able to file jointly for the year of death. Then, in the two years following, they are entitled to file as a qualifying widow or widower as long as they claim a dependent child, stepchild, or adopted child and have not remarried.

For example, if a man died in 2020 and left behind a wife and two young children, the woman can still file jointly for the 2020 tax year. For tax years 2021 and 2022, she’ll be eligible to file as a qualifying widow, which retains the same benefits of the married filing jointly status, as long as she pays for more than half of the household expenses.

The standard deduction is the same as for MFJ: $24,800 for the 2020 tax year and $25,100 for the 2021 tax year.

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