How to choose your filing status on your tax return

African American couple in living room, using laptop to review their finances and choose their filing status.Image: African American couple in living room, using laptop to review their finances and choose their filing status.

In a Nutshell

If you don’t know how to choose your filing status, you may miss out on important tax benefits. Familiarizing yourself with the options and their requirements can help ensure you maximize any tax refund you may be owed.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Christina Taylor, MBA, senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

When it comes to maximizing any refund you’re owed, it’s important to choose the tax filing status that’s right for you.

That’s because tax filing status can affect the amount of tax you owe, and it may even determine if you have to file a return at all. The five IRS filing statuses largely depend on your marital status at the end of the tax year.

To help you learn how to choose your filing status, we’ll run through the different options, how to tell if you’re eligible, and how they’ll affect your return.



What are the IRS tax filing statuses?

Different filing statuses will affect your tax differently; however, “you can’t just choose the most attractive status,” says Josh Zimmelman, president of Westwood Tax & Consulting. “It has to accurately reflect your life status.”

Here’s a breakdown of each of the five filing statuses, how to qualify and how they’ll affect your tax refund.

Single

If you’re not married, or you’re divorced or legally separated by law, this status applies to you. When you choose this status, you must file a tax return if your gross income for the year was at least …

  • $12,400 and you’re younger than 65
  • $14,050 and you’re 65 or older

Single taxpayers can choose to take a standard deduction of $12,400 when filing their 2020 federal income tax return.

Head of household

You can be considered the head of household if you’re not married but you’ve covered more than half the cost of keeping up your home for yourself and at least one other qualifying person.

If you choose this status, you will need to file a tax return if your gross income for the year was at least …

  • $18,650 and you’re younger than 65
  • $20,300 and you’re 65 or older

The standard deduction for heads of household is $18,650 in 2020. So if you can choose between head of household and single, head of household should give you the higher deduction.

Married filing jointly

If you’re married, you have the option to choose this status, even if your spouse died during the year.

You’re required to file a return if your gross income for the year was at least …

  • $24,800 and you’re younger than 65 (both spouses)
  • $26,100 and you’re 65 or older (one spouse)
  • $27,400 and you’re 65 or older (both spouses)

If you’re married filing jointly, your available standard deduction for 2020 is $24,800.

Married filing separately

As a married couple, you can also choose this option if it results in both of you owing less tax. It’s also a good option if you just want to be responsible for your own tax and not your spouse’s.

If you’re married filing separately, you must file a return if your gross income is at least $5, regardless of your age. Your 2020 standard deduction is equal to that of a single filer at $12,400.

Qualifying widow(er) with a dependent child

If your spouse died in the past two years, you haven’t remarried, and you can claim a child as a dependent, you may qualify for this filing status.

If you qualify, you’re required to file if your income is at least …

  • $24,800 and you’re younger than 65
  • $26,100 and you’re 65 or older

As a qualifying widow(er), your standard deduction will be $24,800 for 2020. Keep in mind there are some other requirements for this filing status.

What happens if you choose the wrong status?

It is possible to choose the wrong status, or to experience a life event that causes your status to change.

Choosing the lesser of your statuses

If you qualify for more than one tax filing status — say single and head of household or married filing jointly and married filing separately — choosing the wrong one could result in a lower tax refund for you.

Choosing a status you don’t qualify for

If you choose married filing jointly, but you and your spouse legally separated or divorced before the end of the year, there could be other repercussions.

“You may end up with an audit, a bill for additional tax, interest charges and other penalties,” says Zimmelman.

You may also face fraud penalties if the IRS suspects that you were intentionally deceptive.

The good news is that if you accidentally choose the wrong status, you can file an amended return to correct the mistake. However, if you filed using the married filing jointly status, you can’t change your status for that tax year to filing separate after the due date of the return. An exception may be possible in the case of a deceased spouse.

You can learn more about amended returns on the IRS website.


Bottom line

Knowing how to choose your filing status on your tax return is the first step to doing your taxes, and it can make a big difference in how much you owe or get back. Choosing the right status can help ensure you get the maximum refund if you’re due one.


Christina Taylor is senior manager of tax operations for Credit Karma. 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: Ben Luthi is a personal finance freelance writer and credit cards expert. He holds a bachelor’s degree in business management and finance from Brigham Young University. In addition to Credit Karma, you can find his wo… Read more.