In a Nutshell“Single” isn’t just the status you choose on a dating app. It’s also a tax-filing classification that helps the IRS determine whether you should file, what your standard deduction is, which credits you may be eligible for and how much tax you owe. But not everyone who’s unmarried should use this status on their tax return. Other statuses, like head of household or qualifying widow(er), may allow eligible filers to claim bigger tax breaks.
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.
The single tax-filing status is the default for unmarried people who don’t qualify for another status. But it pays to double-check your tax situation to be sure you’re using the correct, and most beneficial, status.
Choosing the right tax-filing status is one of the first steps to calculating your income tax each year. It affects the taxes you pay, the standard deductions you can take and certain tax breaks you’re eligible to claim.
But how do you know when to file as single or when you can file with another status? Let’s take a look at the requirements.
- What is the single filing status?
- Who’s eligible to use the single filing status?
- What are the standard deductions and tax brackets for single filers?
- What are some pros and cons of the single filing status?
Single is one of the five tax-filing statuses that the IRS recognizes. The others are married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow(er). Of the 150 million-plus federal returns filed in tax year 2016, about 71.4 million used the single status, according to the IRS.
While you can’t pick just any filing status you want, you may use the one that taxes you the least — as long as you qualify, says Kristin Ingram, a certified public accountant at Accounting in Focus and an accounting lecturer at University of Hartford.
The single filing status is typically the “least favorable, so just make sure you look at all your circumstances before you check the box that says you’re single,” she says.
When did filing statuses first appear on federal income tax forms?
The filing statuses we know today — single, head of household, qualifying widow(er), married filing jointly and married filing separately — first appeared on the federal Form 1040 in 1961.
Typically, you’ll use the single filing status on your 1040 federal income tax return if all of the following descriptions apply to you:
- You’re considered unmarried, which is based on your situation on the last day of the year. If you’ve never been married, or you’re legally separated or divorced when Dec. 31 rolls around, then you’re considered unmarried for the entire year.
- You don’t qualify as head of household. For example, if you don’t pay at least half the cost of keeping up a home for yourself and at least one dependent or qualifying person, you likely don’t qualify.
- Your spouse died before Jan. 1 of the tax year, you didn’t remarry before the end of the year, and you have no qualifying child or dependent.
For the 2020 tax year, single filers are required to file a federal income tax return if …
- They’re younger than 65 and their adjusted gross income was at least $12,400 during the tax year.
- They’re 65 or older and had adjusted gross income of at least $14,050 during the tax year.
There are a few life events that may cause you to change your status from single on your return, including the following:
- Marriage — If you get married, you can file as married filing jointly or married filing separately.
- Adding a child or other dependent — If you have a child or a qualifying dependent and remain unmarried, you may be able to use the head-of-household status.
- A spouse’s death — If you have a qualifying child and your spouse passed away within the previous two tax years, you may be able to file as a qualifying widow(er), as long as you don’t remarry by the end of the current tax year.
Regardless of your tax-filing status, you can either itemize your deductions or take the standard deduction — which is a fixed dollar amount that automatically reduces your taxable income — on your income tax return. If your filing status for the 2020 tax year is single, you can take a standard deduction of $12,400. And it could be higher if you’re 65 or older or are blind.
The U.S. tax code is progressive, meaning the highest tax bracket your income falls into isn’t the only rate that gets applied to your taxable income. Instead, if your income falls within multiple brackets, you’ll pay the rate for each bracket only on the portion of your income that falls within that bracket’s thresholds.
Here are the tax rates and tax-bracket thresholds for single taxpayers in 2020.
$518,401 and more
To calculate your federal tax liability, you’d apply your corresponding tax rate to the income in each tax bracket and then add any flat amount of additional tax, as described in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Tax tip: The tax tables included in the instructions that come with your Form 1040 can help you do the math.
Advantages of filing solo
If you’re single, you’ll only need to gather information and tax forms for yourself. That’s probably a lot less paperwork than if you were filing jointly with a spouse. It might even take less time to prepare your return.
But even though it may be simpler to have just one set of tax circumstances to consider when you’re filing your federal income taxes, the single filing status typically offers the least tax advantages.
Drawbacks to filing solo
The standard deduction for single filers (and people married filing separately) is the lowest among the filing statuses, which means you may not be able to lower your taxable income, and consequently your tax liability, as much as other filers.
2020 standard deduction
Single or married filing separately
Head of household
Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)
Here’s a simple example of how the standard deduction works in different situations.
Consider two co-workers, both younger than 65 and earning $50,000 a year. One uses the single filing status and the other files as a head of household.
The single filer’s taxable income can be reduced to $37,600 using the standard deduction of $12,400. But the head of household filer can deduct $18,650 if they take the standard deduction, which takes their income down to $31,350, resulting in lower taxable income, which is the starting point for calculating their tax.
Another drawback with this filing status: In general, tax breaks may be worth less to single filers. Here’s why. Eligible single filers can claim any of the credits and deductions they qualify for. But some credits and deductions have income phaseouts that vary by filing status.
For example, for the 2020 tax year, single filers can claim the lifetime learning credit but the amount they can claim starts phasing out once their modified adjusted gross income exceeds $59,000. For couples married filing jointly, that phaseout begins at $118,000.
If you’re unmarried and have no kids, chances are you’ll file your federal income tax return under the single status. But to save money, it pays to check whether you qualify as head of household or another more-beneficial tax-filing status.
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.