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Tax Filing Guide: How to determine your tax filing status?

The first step in filing your taxes is to determine your tax filing status. While this initial step may seem simple, several tax filing options exist. The selected filing status will have an impact on your tax return; therefore, it is helpful to have a basic understanding about the filing statuses available to U.S. taxpayers.

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Tax Filing Status

Five unique tax filing statuses exist for U.S. taxpayers, which include: single, married filing jointly (MFJ), married filing separately (MFS), qualifying widower, and head of household (HOH). U.S. tax law categorizes taxpayers into the five categories based on the taxpayers' current situation. I will detail each filing status below to help you determine your tax filing status.


You should file as single if you are unmarried at the end of the year, meaning never married, divorced, or legally separated.

It is important to note that U.S. tax law uses the end-of-year test to determine filing status. For example, if you get divorced in November of the tax year (married from January to November), you must file as single for the tax year. In other words, you are considered single for the whole year if you classify as single on the last day of the tax year. 

Married Filing Jointly

You should file as MFJ if you are married at the end of the year, meaning living together in a legally recognized marriage or living apart in a legally recognized marriage.

Like all filing statuses, the end-of-year test applies to joint returns. You may not file as MFJ if you are legally separated or divorced at the end of the tax year. An exception exists for when a spouse dies during the tax year. If your spouse dies during the tax year, you may file a joint return for that year.

Married Filing Separately

Married taxpayers may file as married filing separately (MFS). In general, taxpayers benefit from filing joint returns, but in some unique situations, it may prove practical or advantageous for married taxpayers to file separately. Consult your tax adviser if you think you should file separately.

Qualifying Widower

Special tax rules exist for widowers with dependent child. A qualifying widower files a joint tax return. You may file as a qualifying widower for two years after your spouse's death if you maintain the principal residence for your dependent child. Lets take a closer look at the requirements.

You may file a joint return for two years after your spouse's death. As stated, you may file a joint return in the tax year of your spouse's death. If you are a qualifying widower, you may continue to file a joint tax return for the two tax years following your spouse's death as well. If you remarry during the two year period, you will file a joint (or separate) return with your new spouse.

A qualifying widower must maintain the principal residence for a dependent child. In other words, the surviving spouse must pay for over half of the household costs where a dependent child lives for the whole tax year. In the case of a qualifying widower, the dependent child must be a child, stepchild, or adopted child of the widower. 

Head of Household

The head of household status grants the taxpayer a larger standard deduction and wider tax brackets, which result in lower taxes. You may file head of household if you meet the following qualifications:
  • You are unmarried, legally separated/divorced, or married and living apart from your spouse for last six months of the tax year
  • You are not a qualifying widower
  • You are not a nonresident alien
  • You maintain a household with a qualifying person for more than half the tax year. 
In other words, you pay over half of the household costs where a qualifying person lives for more than half the year. A qualifying person includes a qualifying child, a parent, or a qualifying relative. Please see the following post discussing the dependency definitions to help you determine if you maintain a household for a qualifying person.

Link: Dependency Definitions: Learn who you can claim as a dependent on your tax return

In conclusion

U.S. tax law defines the qualifications for each tax filing status. The information provided in my guide to tax filing should help you determine your tax filing status. Remember to use the end-of-year test to determine if you are single or married for the tax year. Remember qualifying widowers may file joint returns for an additional two year period. Additionally, note the difference between the time requirements for maintaining a home for a qualifying widower filer versus a head of household filer (QW: whole year; HOH: half year).  

I hope you increased your understanding about the tax filing statuses available to U.S. taxpayers. Please share to help others learn how to determine their tax filing statuses. As always, comment below for any and all questions and concerns relating to your tax return filing status!


  1. After reading your blog I think you have good information. I would like to share this information with my friends who need this. Thanks for this blog. File Taxes Online


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