It’s my annual “Taxes from A to Z” series! For the series, I’ll focus on terms that you might see on your tax forms and statements but not necessarily in the headlines. If you’re wondering whether you can claim wardrobe expenses or whether to deduct a capital loss, this is one series you won’t want to miss.

F is for Filing Status.

One of the first pieces of information you share with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is your filing status. Your filing status impacts your tax rates, the number of personal exemptions you can claim, your qualification for certain tax deductions and credits, and more.

Your filing status may determine whether you must file a federal income tax return as well as what kind of return you can file.

You can choose from one of five filing statuses on a federal tax return:

  • Single;
  • Married Filing Jointly;
  • Married Filing Separately;
  • Head of Household; and
  • Qualifying Widow(er) With Dependent Child.

For federal income tax status, marital status is determined by state law as of the last day of the calendar year. If you are married on December 31, you are considered married for the year.

If you’re not married because you were never legally married or you were legally separated or divorced according to the laws of your state, you can file as single. You can’t file as single just because you feel single: if you live by yourself but you’re still legally married, that doesn’t make you single.

If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married to your former spouse for the whole year – unless you remarry before the end of the tax year. If you do remarry, you will file as married with your new spouse; your deceased spouse’s filing status will be married filing separately for that year.

It’s the law that matters, not geography or your living arrangements. You can file as married filing jointly (MFJ) whether or not you lived together with your spouse at any time during the year (though you don’t have to… keep reading).

Similarly, married filing separate (MFS) doesn’t have anything to do with your living arrangements. MFS is a tax choice where married taxpayers opt to file separate returns. Deductions and credits can be significantly limited so, in most cases, you’re more likely to get a higher tax bill filing MFS than MFJ. If you file MFS, you have to coordinate with your spouse. If one spouse chooses to itemize, the other must also itemize; if one spouse claims the standard deduction, the other must also claim the standard deduction.

If you are unmarried and provide a home for a dependent, you may be able to file as Head of Household (HOH).

You must be single, divorced, or considered unmarried at the end of the tax year and have paid more than 50% to keep a home for the entire tax year with your dependent or a parent who was a dependent. You may be considered unmarried for purposes of HOH if all of the following apply: you lived apart from your spouse for the last 6 months of the tax year (don’t count temporary absences for business, medical care, school, or military service); you file a separate tax return from your spouse; you paid over half the cost of keeping up your home for the tax year; your home was the main home of your child, stepchild, or foster child for more than half of the tax year; and you can or could claim the child as your dependent.

If your spouse died during the year and you have a dependent in the home, you can, for the next two years, opt to file as qualifying widow(er) with dependent child so long as you don’t get remarried.

There may be a situation where more than one filing status applies to you. In that event, you’ll want to run the numbers and choose the one that will result in the least amount of tax.

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Kelly Phillips Erb is a tax attorney, tax writer, and podcaster.

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