How to Determine Filing Status on a Tax Return

by Gail Sessoms, Demand Media

The filing status choices for federal tax returns are single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child. Before you check one of the five boxes in the filing status section, ask yourself a few questions to determine which filing status is right for you. Your filing status affects many aspects of your federal tax return, including whether you need to file one at all. You use your filing status, which can change from year to year, to determine your tax benefits, such as credits and deductions and to calculate how much you owe in taxes. Understanding the IRS rules helps you make the right choice and avoid filing errors.

Step 1

Determine your marital status - - unmarried, separated, divorced or widowed - - on the last day of the tax year. You marital status on that date is your marital status for the entire tax year.

Step 2

Select “single” as your filing status if during the tax year you were divorced, unmarried or legally separated as determined by your state law.

Step 3

Choose the “married filing jointly” status if you and your spouse will file a joint return. Generally, you may choose “married filing jointly” if your spouse died during the tax year for which you are filing and you would have qualified for that status absent your spouse’s death.

Step 4

Check the box for “married filing separately” if you are married but you and your spouse plan to file separate tax returns. If you choose this filing status, your spouse must also choose it.

Step 5

Review the qualifications for “head of household” before selecting it as a filing status. You must be unmarried. You must have a qualifying person living in the home for at least half of the year. Your dependent parent does not have to live in your home to qualify. You must have paid more than half the expense of maintaining the home. Certain married persons who live apart may file as “house of household” under certain conditions.

Step 6

Choose the filing status “qualifying widow(er) with dependent child” if your spouse died during the tax year and you are caring for a dependent child. You may choose this status for the next two tax years after your spouse’s death if you are unmarried. Review additional requirements in IRS Publication 501.

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  • Review your tax form instructions and IRS Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information, for detailed information on choosing a filing status. If you qualify for more than one filing status you should, according to the IRS, choose the filing status under which you pay the least in taxes. The IRS web site has an interactive tax assistant tool, which allows you to answer questions to generate information about your correct filing status.


  • Carefully consider your eligibility for “head of household,” which is the filing status most often chosen incorrectly, according to the IRS. A married person might want to file separately if their spouse has issues such as unreported income or too little withheld in taxes, according to the IRS.

About the Author

Gail Sessoms, a grant writer and nonprofit consultant, writes about nonprofit, small business and personal finance issues. She volunteers as a court-appointed child advocate, has a background in social services and writes about issues important to families. Sessoms holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal studies.

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