How life changes can change your filing status — and your taxes

Young African-American couple taking a break from painting and decorating their new home. Getting married is a life change that will change your filing status.Image: Young African-American couple taking a break from painting and decorating their new home. Getting married is a life change that will change your filing status.

In a Nutshell

Big changes — like marriage, divorce and parenthood — could mean you need to change your filing status, which affects your taxes. Here’s what you should know when it’s time to change your filing status.

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This article was fact-checked by our editors and reviewed by Christina Taylor, MBA, senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma Tax®.

Getting married. Getting divorced. Having a child.

These events all lead to major life changes, but you may not be fully aware of how they can change your filing status and your taxes, too.

Each year when you file your taxes, you must choose a filing status. The IRS has very specific guidelines for each filing status, so it’s important to choose the right one.

“When taxpayers file their tax return, it’s important they use the right filing status, because it can affect the amount of tax they owe for the year. It may even determine if they must file a federal income tax return at all,” says Alex Joyce, president and CEO of ReJoyce Financial LLC.

Whether you file your own taxes through a free online tax-filing service like Credit Karma Tax® or pay a professional to do it for you, your filing status will play a critical role in your 2017 taxes. But when you experience life changes, you may not be sure which filing status is right for you.

Here’s what you need to know before you file your return this year, especially if you think you’ll also change your filing status.

5 filing statuses

When most people file taxes for the first time, their filing status is likely single. But that’s only one of five possible filing statuses. The others are married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.

Single:

If you aren’t married, are legally separated or are legally divorced under state law as of December 31 of that tax year, you can choose this status.

Married filing jointly:

In the eyes of the IRS, if you are married by December 31 of a given tax year, then you’re deemed married for the entire year from a tax perspective. You and your spouse can file one return that contains both of your tax information for the year. You may also choose this status if your spouse died that tax year and you haven’t remarried.

Married filing separately:

Married couples can opt to file two separate returns if it could result in paying less tax than if they filed jointly, though this is rare and generally involves highly disparate incomes with uncommon deductions. However, the best way to determine which option will lead to a lower tax rate is to calculate your tax using both options and then compare the results.

“There are pros and cons for each filing status,” Joyce says. “Couples who are married and filing jointly, for instance, may enjoy lower tax rates on their combined income. Married filing jointly also makes both of you responsible for what goes on your tax return: both spouses must sign.”

That means you may want to file separately if you’re concerned that your spouse might be taking liberties with their tax returns.

Joyce concludes that, “Generally speaking, there are more tax benefits to filing jointly, but there may be reasons to file separately.”

Carefully consider what is best for both you as an individual and as part of a couple.

Head of household:

This tax status generally applies to people who aren’t married and who pay more than 50 percent of the costs for maintaining a household for themselves and a qualifying person, such as a child. Based on these guidelines, many single parents often qualify for this status.

Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child:

Losing a spouse is traumatic. This unfortunate circumstance could make you eligible to file as a qualifying widow(er) with dependent child for up to two years following the year of your spouse’s death. For example, if your spouse died in 2017, you can file as a qualifying widow(er) for the 2017 and 2018 tax years, but not in the 2019 tax year. You also cannot have remarried, and you must have a qualifying dependent child whom you support and lives in your home all year.

If more than one status describes your situation, then the IRS advises taxpayers to choose the status that lets them pay the least amount of tax.

Life events that might change your filing status

Sometimes, circumstances change throughout the year. Here are some life events that could mean it’s time to change your filing status:

  • You get married. If you get married, you’ll need to update your filing status. It’s simple to do. Come tax time, decide whether you’ll file jointly or separately, and select that filing status on your tax return. You’ll be eligible to claim a different new standard deduction. In 2017, the standard deduction for couples who are married and filing jointly is $12,600. Because of recent changes to the tax code, the standard deduction for those married filing jointly will rise to $24,000 in the 2018 tax year.
  • You get divorced. If you were legally separated or divorced by December 31, your tax status will change to single or head of household.
Filing status Tax year Standard deduction
Single 2017 $6,350
2018 through 2025 $12,000
Head of household 2017 $9,350
2018 through 2025 $18,000

 

As you can see from the table above, being married makes you eligible for a higher exemption, so any change in this status will reduce that particular tax benefit.

  • You have a child and are unmarried. Having a child can make you eligible for other exemptions, credits and deductions, and may change your filing status. For example, you could move from a single filer to head of household if you’re unmarried, and you may be eligible for a higher earned income tax credit.

How do I change my filing status?

Remember that if your life circumstances change, it’s a good idea to check in with your accountant to see how this will affect your status — and your taxes. This ensures that when you file your taxes by April 17, you designate the right status directly on your return. It’s also smart to check in with your company’s payroll to adjust your withholding so that your taxes are correct moving forward. All you have to do is update your W-4 form so that your employer will deduct the appropriate amount of federal income tax from your paycheck.

“You can’t really choose not to change your filing status,” says David Adams, certified public accountant and founder and principal of the David Adams Wealth Group. “If you are no longer married, you can’t file as a married person. If you no longer have a dependent child, you cannot still file as head of household. [However], the new tax law has lowered income brackets for single, head-of-household and married-filing-jointly taxpayers, so all should see some relief.”

But if you discover you accidentally chose the wrong status on your tax return within the past three years, file an amended return to correct the error. If you chose the wrong status and got fewer deductions or exemptions, you could be entitled to a refund. But there’s also a possibility that choosing the wrong filing status helped you get greater tax benefits than you should’ve received (for example, choosing married filing separately instead of single), so correcting your filing status could result in a tax bill instead, depending on your situation.

Bottom line

The IRS has five filing statuses, but it’s not always clear cut what status is right for you — and sometimes you may qualify for more than one status.

To avoid any confusion, you can use the online IRS tool “What Is My Filing Status.” Or you can talk to a tax expert or your accountant to get clarity. Taking this extra step before you file your return could help you avoid tax errors that may cost you valuable time and money.


Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma Tax®. She has more than a dozen years of experience in tax, accounting and business operations. Christina founded her own accounting consultancy and managed it for more than six years. She co-developed an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.


About the author: Satta Sarmah Hightower is a writer, editor and content marketing manager with a decade of experience in the media industry. Her writing focuses on healthcare, personal finance and techno… Read more.