In a NutshellChoosing a filing status can be confusing, especially if you’re not sure whether you should file as single or head of household. Here’s some information to help you decide.
This article was fact-checked by our editors and Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.
Choosing the wrong filing status is one of the most common errors people make on tax returns, according to the IRS.
Like many other aspects of taxes, choosing a filing status can be confusing — especially if more than one can apply to you. For example, if you’re not married, you might think you should claim the single filing status. But what if you have at least one dependent?
You may be able to claim the head-of-household filing status on your federal return, which could score you a lower tax rate, a smaller tax liability and bigger tax refund (if you’re due one) than you would get by filing as single.
So how can you qualify to file as head of household? Let’s take a look at the requirements and advantages of this filing status.
- What’s a filing status and why does it matter?
- Who can file as head of household?
- Who counts as a qualifying person for head-of-household purposes?
- What are some tax benefits of filing as head of household?
- What if I filed single when I could have filed as head of household?
A filing status is a designation that tells the IRS some very important information about you, including whether you’re married, single or widowed, and whether you have dependent children. Your filing status helps determine your tax rate, what tax bracket you end up in, the amount of tax you owe, your standard deduction, eligibility for certain credits and even if you have to file at all.
Choosing the wrong filing status could leave you paying far more in taxes than you should. Here are the filing statuses the IRS recognizes.
You can see from the above chart that filing status is generally tied to marital status, with married taxpayers having the option to file jointly or separately. Generally, people who have never been married, or who are legally divorced or separated at the end of a tax year, should use the single filing status.
But some unmarried taxpayers can use the head-of-household filing status. But you must meet certain requirements, including the following:
- You were unmarried or considered unmarried on the last day of the tax year.
- You paid more than half the cost of maintaining a household for the tax year.
- You had at least one qualifying person living with you for more than half the tax year (except for temporary absences, like attending college). Note: Qualifying dependent parents don’t have to live with you.
Here’s an example of how the qualifying cost of maintaining a home works: Your 18-year-old son lived with you and paid half of all the household bills. You can’t claim the head-of-household filing status. You can only claim head of household if you paid more than half, which would be 51% or more of your total household expenses.
Once you’ve established that you paid more than 50% of the expenses of your home, you must also meet all the requirements for your qualifying person that you claim as your dependent.
To file head of household, you must have a qualifying dependent. A qualifying person may be …
- Your qualifying child, like a son, daughter or grandchild who lived with you more than half the year and meets certain other criteria. (More on this in a moment.)
- Your dependent mother or father.
- A qualifying relative other than a parent (like a sibling or grandparent) who lived with you more than half the year and is your dependent. (More on this, too.)
Your qualifying person can’t be someone else’s qualifying person who enables them to file as head of household for the same tax year.
Qualifying child tests
To be considered as qualifying, a child must meet five tests.
- Relationship test — To meet the relationship test, a child must be your child, stepchild, foster child, grandchild, sibling, step- or half-sibling, niece, nephew, or adopted child.
- Age test — Your child must be younger than you, and younger than 19 at the end of the year. If your child is in college, they can still be considered as qualifying (until age 24). And if your child is permanently disabled, they qualify regardless of their age.
- Residency test — To meet this test, your child must have lived with you for more than half the year. Some situations may qualify as exceptions, or reasons why your child didn’t live with you, that will still allow you to claim them.
- Support test — Your child didn’t provide more than half of their own support for the year.
- Joint return test — If your qualifying child is married, they can’t have filed a joint return with their spouse unless it was to claim a refund of income tax withheld or estimated tax they paid.
What if you don’t have a child to qualify as your dependent, but you have a family member who lived with you more than half the year?
A qualifying relative can be any age and can be considered as a dependent who helps you qualify for the head-of-household filing status by meeting four tests.
- Not-a-qualifying-child test — The relative isn’t your qualifying child or the qualifying child of another taxpayer. For example, you have an adult child who doesn’t meet the age test to be a qualifying child, but they may meet the other tests to be considered a qualifying relative.
- Gross income test — Your qualifying relative can’t have gross income of a certain amount for the tax year. Income includes money, property and services that aren’t exempt from tax. There are exceptions and this limit may change from year to year.
- Member-of-household or relationship test — Anyone who lives with you all year as a member of your household can meet this test, even if they’re not related to you. If the person is your child, stepchild or foster child, they may also meet this test, even if they didn’t live with you all year. Same goes for other relatives: grandchildren; siblings, half-siblings or step-siblings; parents, in-laws, step-parents and grandparents; nieces and nephews; and aunts and uncles.
- Support test — Generally, you must have provided more than half of your qualifying person’s total support during the year for them to meet this test.
Filing as head of household has advantages over the single or married-filing-separately statuses, including the following:
- A lower tax rate — Generally, the income thresholds for head of household filers are higher than for single filers. That means more of your income can be taxed at a lower rate if you can file as head of household. For example, for 2019 single filers moved from the 10% tax rate (the lowest) to 12% when their income exceeded $9,700. For head of household filers, that threshold was $13,850.
- A higher standard deduction — The standard deduction for head of household is $18,650 for 2020 versus $12,400 for single filers. Like all tax deductions, the standard deduction helps reduce your taxable income, which in turn may reduce your tax liability.
- Access to certain credits — For example, by filing as head of household, you can claim the child tax credit for your qualifying child.
If you filed a recent federal return as single when you qualified to use the head-of-household status, all is not lost.
You can likely correct your filing status for the tax year — and claim any tax advantages you missed — by filing an amended tax return. There’s a place on Form 1040-X where you can change your filing status. Just be aware that if you change your filing status to head of household, you’ll need to include the name of any qualifying child who is not your dependent. There’s also a section where you’ll need to explain why you’re filing the amended return.
As you can see, filing as head of household has its advantages — if you’re a single person and can meet the tests and qualifications. It’s certainly not as restrictive as the married-filing-separately status, which limits certain credits and deductions. By filing as head of household, you may be able to claim deductions and credits not available to single filers or those married filing separately.
Still not sure you qualify to file as head of household? The IRS offers an interactive assistant to help you choose a filing status.
Relevant sources: IRS: Publication 17 — Your Federal Income Tax | IRS: SOI Tax Stats — Individual Income Tax Returns Publication 1304 (Complete Report) | IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status | IRS: What Is My Filing Status? | IRS: Publication 501 (2019), Dependents, Standard Deduction and Filing Information
Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.