In a NutshellThe IRS offers ways to help ease your tax burden after a spouse dies. When filing your tax returns, you may be eligible to use filing statuses — such as married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) — that offer a chance of getting a lower tax rate and a higher standard deduction.
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.
The death of a spouse is one of life’s most devastating experiences. The last thing you might want to think about is how your loss will affect your taxes.
But a change in marital status for any reason does make a difference in how you file your taxes. Fortunately, the IRS offers a way to ease the transition in your tax filing status and income tax rates: the qualifying widow(er) tax filing status.
- Filing status basics
- Qualifying widow(er) eligibility requirements
- Tax rates and standard deduction under qualifying widow status
- Pros and cons of the qualifying widow status
Filing status basics
One of the first boxes you check on your federal return is the one indicating your tax filing status. It’s important to pick the correct status because the choice affects the amount of taxes you pay, the standard deductions you can take, certain tax breaks you can claim — even whether you have to file at all.
The IRS recognizes five filing statuses: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow(er). The tax brackets are the same for joint filers and qualifying widows. Out of the 150 million-plus federal returns filed for the 2016 tax year, more than 54 million people used these two statuses, according to the IRS.
If you qualify for more than one status, the IRS says you can file using the one that results in the least tax.
Qualifying widow(er) status
When your spouse was alive, you probably both used a filing status of married filing jointly or married filing separately, depending on whether you filed a joint return or separate returns. When a spouse passes away, the surviving spouse may be able to use the qualifying widow status, which provides many of the same tax benefits as the married filing jointly status.
But there are rules for who can use this status and when you can use it.
After a death, “to get hit with that larger tax bill is sometimes kind of shocking for the (surviving) spouse,” says Kristin Ingram, certified public accountant at Accounting In Focus and an accounting lecturer at University of Hartford. “This (qualifying widow) status is designed to ease the transition to help with that.”
When did filing statuses first appear on federal income tax forms?
The filing statuses we know today — single, head of household, qualifying widow or widower, married filing jointly, and married filing separately — debuted in the past century. They first appeared on the federal Form 1040 in 1961.
Qualifying widow(er) eligibility requirements
In the year your spouse dies, you can use either the married filing jointly status or filing separately status — not qualifying widow(er) — as long as you don’t get married again in that tax year.
If you remarry in the same year of your spouse’s death, you’d file your return with your new spouse under the joint or separate status. If remarried and you’re required to file a return for your deceased spouse, their status would be married filing separately. That’s because the deceased spouse typically has income that needs to be reported to the IRS. The status of married filing separately requires spouses to use the same approach to deductions — either you must both take the standard deduction or both itemize deductions.
You may use the qualifying widow status for two years after the year of your spouse’s death as long as you remain unmarried. To use this status for the 2018 tax year, all these descriptions must apply to you:
- Your spouse died in 2018 or 2019, and you didn’t remarry before the end of 2020.
- You could have filed as married filing jointly with your spouse for the year your spouse died.
- You can claim a child, stepchild or adopted child (but not a foster child) as your dependent and the dependent fulfills other requirements. Check out the rules on who qualifies as a dependent.
- You paid for more than half the cost of keeping up a home. This must be your child’s main home for the entire year, except for temporary absences.
For the 2020 tax year, qualifying widow(er)s are required to file a federal income tax return if they are:
- Younger than 65 with a gross income of at least $24,800.
- 65 years or older with a gross income of at least $26,100.
A few life events may cause you to change your status to or from the qualifying widow(er) status on your return:
- As mentioned earlier, you may be able to use the qualifying widower status for two years, starting the year after your spouse dies.
- After the two-year period, if you remain unmarried, then you can use the head of household status if you have qualifying dependents or the single filing status, whichever you qualify for.
- If you remarry within the two years, then you can file as married filing jointly or married filing separately.
Tax rates and standard deduction under qualifying widow status
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 temporarily suspended personal exemptions, so you can’t claim a personal exemption for yourself or anyone else on your federal return for the 2020 tax year. However, you can lower your tax burden by either itemizing your deductions or taking the standard deduction, which is a set dollar amount that you can use to automatically reduce your taxable income.
In 2020, the standard deduction is $24,800 for a qualifying widow(er). It could be higher if you’re 65 or older or are blind.
The U.S. tax code is progressive. That means it’s possible for your income to fall into multiple tax brackets. If that’s the case, then you’ll pay the rate for each bracket only on the portion of your income that falls within the thresholds of that bracket. And for most brackets, there’s a flat amount of tax you’ll pay in addition to the percentage of income.
Pros and cons of the qualifying widow status
Advantages of using the qualifying widow status
Eligible taxpayers filing as qualifying widow(er)s with a dependent child can get many of the same tax benefits as married couples who file jointly. That means you can use the highest standard deduction amount among all statuses, as long as you don’t itemize deductions.
If you’re eligible for the qualifying widow status, you won’t yet be required to file as single or head of household, which both offer lower standard deductions.
Additionally, your income will be subject to the lower tax rate enjoyed by those under the married filing jointly status. That allows you to remain in a lower tax bracket even with a high income. And, income requirements to qualify for certain tax credits and deductions are generally lower for married couples filing jointly (and qualifying widow(er)s) than they are for single filers.
Drawbacks to the qualifying widow status
You can file your tax return using the qualifying widow(er) status only if you meet all the requirements set by the IRS. If that’s the case, it would mean you had at least one qualifying dependent child living at home with you, and that you paid for at least half the costs of maintaining that home. You must have remained unmarried to be able to use this filing status.
The qualifying widow tax-filing status can help ease the financial burden of a surviving spouse who qualifies to use it. But the tax benefits are available for a limited time.
As the two-year transition limit approaches on this filing status, be sure to plan ahead since your tax status will change.
If you’re not sure whether you qualify for this status, the IRS offers a free tool to help you figure it out.
Relevant sources: IRS Publication 4491: VITA/TCE Training Guide | IRS Publication 501: Exemptions, Standard Deduction and Filing Information | IRS: SOI Tax Stats – Individual Statistical Tables by Filing Status | IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status | IRS: Topic No. 501 – Should I Itemize?
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.