Your filing status is determined as of the last day of the calendar year: December 31. It doesn't matter what your status would have been for the other 364 days of the year; that's the only day that matters.

With that in mind, here's a brief look at each filing status:

Single. Easy enough. You can file as single if you were never legally married under the laws of the U.S., you were legally separated or divorced according to the laws of your state (in states like Pennsylvania where there is no legal separation, this means your choices are only married or single), or you were widowed before the last tax year and did not remarry during the tax year.


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Your filing status is determined as of the last day of the calendar year: December 31. It doesn't matter what your status would have been for the other 364 days of the year; that's the only day that matters.

With that in mind, here's a brief look at each filing status:

Single. Easy enough. You can file as single if you were never legally married under the laws of the U.S., you were legally separated or divorced according to the laws of your state (in states like Pennsylvania where there is no legal separation, this means your choices are only married or single), or you were widowed before the last tax year and did not remarry during the tax year.

Married Filing Jointly (MFJ). Okay, this one is also pretty easy. You can file as MFJ if you were married as of the last day of the year, whether or not you are living together. If your spouse died during the tax year and you did not remarry, you may also file as MFJ. Again, you must be legally married under the laws of the U.S. (that doesn’t mean that you have to be married here, just that the U.S. has to recognize it) so same-sex marriages are not realized for purposes of MFJ.

Married Filing Separately (MFS). This is a confusing status because it sounds like it's a special rule for folks who are separated. It's not; the rules for MFS are the same as those for MFJ. This status is simply a choice (albeit a less popular choice) for some taxpayers for any of a number of reasons. In most cases, you're more likely to get a higher tax bill filing MFS than MFJ because you lose some of the benefits granted to MFJ filers, including certain deductions and credits. It's also important to note that with MFS, if one spouse chooses to itemize, the other must also itemize; this can be difficult if the primary reason for itemizing was the mortgage interest deduction. Other tax credits and items are affected, too, such as the alternative minimum tax (AMT), child and dependent care expenses, EITC (earned income tax credit) and IRA (individual retirement account) rollovers.

Head of Household (HOH). Head of Household is widely misunderstood. You don't get to claim HOH just because you run the household. You can only file as HOH if you are unmarried (!) and provide a home for a dependent. Keep reading, there's more. You must be single, divorced, or otherwise unmarried at the end of the tax year and (1) you paid more than 50% to keep a home for the entire tax year for a parent who was a dependent OR (2) you paid more than 50% to keep a home for the entire tax year with your dependent (but see the rules later in the book for dependents of divorced or separated parents).

All that said, you are considered unmarried for purposes of HOH even if you were not divorced or legally separated at the end of the tax year 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) AND
  • You file a separate tax return from your spouse AND
  • You paid over half the cost of keeping up your home for the tax year AND
  • 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 (under the rules for children of divorced or separated parents) this child as your dependent.

Qualifying Widow(er) With Dependent Child. If your spouse died during the year, you can opt to file MFJ for the year of death. If 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. The advantage to using this filing status is that you can use the MFJ tax rates and the highest standard deduction amount (if you do not itemize deductions) rather than the lower rates and deduction amounts for singles.

If more than one filing status applies to you—and that can happen—you'll want to claim the one that will result in the least amount of tax.

But what about when things aren’t so cut and dry?

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