How your tax-filing status affects your tax bill

Young Asian mother holding baby and taking the IRS quiz to determine what tax filing status she should use on her federal income tax return.Image: Young Asian mother holding baby and taking the IRS quiz to determine what tax filing status she should use on her federal income tax return.

In a Nutshell

When you file a federal tax return, you choose your tax filing status based on your household relationships. The filing status you choose affects when you move into a higher tax bracket. It also helps determine what deductions and credits you’re eligible to claim to reduce the taxes you owe.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and a member of the Credit Karma Tax® product specialist team, led by Senior Manager of Operations Christina Taylor. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

When you file your federal income tax return, the tax filing status you choose tells the IRS not just about you, but about your tax situation, too.

The IRS recognizes five different tax-filing statuses — single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child (sometimes referred to as “surviving spouse”).

These statuses can affect both your tax rate and your eligibility for different tax breaks that lower your total federal tax bill. Your filing status also determines your standard deduction.

Your tax filing status could even determine whether you need to file a return at all.

What is your tax filing status?

Your family situation affects your household income. The IRS recognizes this and taxes people differently depending on whether they’re single, single with dependents or married.

To let the IRS know how you should be taxed, you’ll choose a tax filing status when you submit your tax return. IRS rules determine your filing status as follows:

  • Single: You’re not married, are divorced or are legally separated from your spouse
  • Head of household: You’re not married and you pay for more than half the support of a loved one who’s considered a qualifying person based on residency, marital status or relationship to you
  • Married filing jointly: You’re legally wed (or were during the tax year) and your spouse was alive at any point during the year
  • Married filing separately: You’re legally married but don’t want to file a shared return with your spouse
  • Qualifying widow or widower with dependent child: Your spouse died within the two preceding tax years, you have a dependent child who lived with you the entire year (except for temporary absences) and you haven’t remarried before the end of the tax year

If you choose the wrong filing status, you might end up overpaying or underpaying your taxes, because your status has a big impact on how you’re taxed.

Your tax-filing status affects whether you must file

Some taxpayers may not be required to file a federal tax return. But generally, you should file a tax return if …

  • Your gross income exceeds certain thresholds for your age and filing status, as updated by the IRS every year
  • You had taxes withheld and you’re entitled to a refund (regardless of whether your income exceeds the filing threshold)
  • You need to file a return in order to claim a refundable credit you’re entitled to

IRS Publication 501 provides filing information, including income thresholds. Threshold amounts tend to increase slightly from year to year.

It’s possible to earn thousands more in income with a certain filing status before having to file a tax return.

Your tax filing status affects your tax rate

The United States has a progressive tax system, so taxpayers who earn more may have some of their earnings taxed at higher rates. Tax brackets determine how much of your income is taxed at each rate.

Once your income exceeds a certain threshold, you move into a higher tax bracket and the additional dollars earned are taxed at the higher rate. Your filing status determines how much you can earn before you move up to a higher bracket.

The table below shows the range of income taxed at each rate, as of 2020 — and illustrates how filing status affects the amount you can earn before additional earnings are taxed at a higher rate.


Federal tax brackets and rates for 2020

Tax rate


Married filing jointly

Head of household

Married filing separately
































$518,401 and more

$622,051 and more

$518,401 and more

$311,026 and more


Your filing status always affects the amount you can earn before moving to a higher bracket. So a change in filing status might in turn change your tax bill. If in the 2020 tax year you were married, the sole breadwinner, filed jointly and had $170,000 in taxable income, you’d be in the 22% tax bracket. But if you got divorced and decided to file as single, and nothing else changed, you’d move to the 32% tax bracket, meaning a new rate would apply to the portion of your taxable income within the higher bracket.


How does your tax bracket affect tax calculations?

A tax bracket is a range of taxable income that’s taxed at a corresponding tax rate. The U.S. tax code has seven brackets and rates: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%.

Your income determines your tax bracket, but knowing your bracket and marginal tax rate isn’t enough to calculate your tax. Learn about calculating your tax here.

Your tax-filing status affects your standard deduction

When you file your taxes, you can either itemize your deductions — which means claiming deductions for specific qualifying expenditures — or claim a standard deduction. Your tax-filing status also affects your standard deduction. For 2020, the standard deduction amounts are:

  • If you file as single, your standard deduction is $12,400
  • If you file as married filing separately, your standard deduction is $12,400
  • If you file as head of household, your standard deduction is $18,650
  • If you file as married filing jointly, your standard deduction is $24,800

Deductions reduce the amount of your taxable income. If your income was $60,000 and you claim the standard deduction of $12,400 as a single person, you’d reduce taxable income to $47,600, which would put your highest tax bracket within the 22% rate. But if you claimed head-of-household status instead, you’d be taxed on just $41,350, after applying the $18,650 standard deduction. By filing as head-of-household instead, your taxable income is automatically $6,250 less and you’d be within the lower bracket at a rate of 12%.

Your filing status also affects deductions you’re eligible for

So filing status can have a big impact if you claim the standard deduction — but what if you itemize deductions?

Before tax reform, there was a limit on the value of itemized deductions for anyone whose income exceeded a certain level, which varied by filing status.

Since some statuses had higher thresholds for this limit, filing status could potentially affect the value of itemized deductions. But tax reform suspended this limit through the 2025 tax year.

Filing status can still limit certain deductions though, including those you can claim even if you don’t itemize. For example, the deduction for contributions made to IRAs is a common one — and filing status can impact eligibility for it.

In the 2020 tax year, you could potentially deduct up to $6,000 in IRA contributions ($7,000 if you’re 50 or older). But if your modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI, passes a set threshold, determined by your filing status, the deduction starts phasing out. You can learn about IRA contribution limits on the IRS website.

If you lose out on the opportunity to claim deductions, your taxable income — and total tax bill — will likely be higher.

What is MAGI?

For some, MAGI (or modified adjusted gross income) is your adjusted gross income that is modified by certain exclusions or deductions. But in most cases, MAGI is the same adjusted gross income shown on your tax return. 

Adjusted gross income is typically your gross income after adjustments like personal exemptions and standard deductions.

How your filing status affects eligibility for tax credits

Finally, your filing status also affects the tax credits you’re eligible for. Gaining or losing eligibility for tax credits can have a very substantial impact on total taxes owed because tax credits are potentially more valuable than deductions.

Your filing status and the earned income tax credit

The earned income tax credit is one of the most valuable credits. It’s worth up to $538 with no qualifying children; $3,584 with one qualifying child; $5,920 with two qualifying children; and $6,660 with three or more qualifying children. Eligibility is based on adjusted gross income, and your filing status affects how much you can earn before becoming ineligible.

  • If you file as single, head of household or widowed, both your adjusted gross income and earned income must be no more than $15,820 with no children; $41,756 with one child; $47,440 with two children; and $50,594 with three or more children
  • If you file as married filing jointly, you qualify when both your AGI and earned income are no more than $21,710 with no children; $47,646 with one child; $53,330 with two children; and $56,884 with three or more children
  • If you file as married filing separately, you’re not eligible for the earned income tax credit

Other tax credits affected by filing status

Many other tax credits are also affected by filing status as well.

  • Eligibility for the child tax credit begins to phase out after an AGI of $400,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $200,000 for all other taxpayers
  • Eligibility for the lifetime learning credit begins to phase out after a MAGI of $118,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $59,000 for other taxpayers (you can’t claim the credit if you file as married filing separately)
  • Eligibility for the American opportunity tax credit begins to phase out after a MAGI of $160,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly and $80,000 for other taxpayers (you can’t claim the credit if you file as married filing separately)

Taxpayers who file as married filing jointly can typically earn a higher income and still qualify for credits compared with taxpayers who file as single. However, some credits aren’t available at all if you file as married filing separately.

Bottom line

Your tax filing status affects the total amount you pay in taxes because it determines eligibility for deductions, the amount of the standard deduction and your tax rate. Because your filing status can significantly affect your tax bill, it’s important to choose the right one when you file your federal income tax return. The IRS offers an interactive tool to help you choose your filing status.

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 codeveloped an online DIY tax-preparation product, serving as chief operating officer for seven years. She is an Enrolled Agent and the current treasurer of the National Association of Computerized Tax Processors and holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration/accounting from Baker College and an MBA from Meredith College. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Christy Rakoczy Bieber is a full-time personal finance and legal writer. She is a graduate of UCLA School of Law and the University of Rochester. Christy was previously a college teacher… Read more.