Fact Sheet: Determining Your Filing Status




The IRS has five (5) filing status categories.  They are: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, and qualifying widow or widower.  In all cases, no matter what category you fit in, you may only claim the personal deduction for your category if you cannot be claimed as a dependent on the tax return of another taxpayer.  For 2000, the allowed standard deductions for each category are as follows:


            1. Single: $4400.00


            2. Married filing jointly: $7350.00


            3. Married filing separately: $3675.00


            4. Head of household: $6450.00


            5. Qualifying widow or widower: $7350.00


            If you can be claimed as dependent on another taxpayer’s tax return you may only utilize a standard deduction of $700.00 or the total of your earned income plus $250.00, whichever is greater, but you may not claim more of a deduction than you would otherwise be allowed to claim for your category above.


            Qualifications for each category:


1. Married filing jointly: You are in this category if you and your spouse are married as of the last day of the year for which your return is being prepared.  If your spouse died during the year, you are still considered by the IRS to have been married at the end of the year.  Note that there is no common law marriage in California.


The filing of a joint return requires the consent of both spouses.  If one spouse refuses to file a joint return, then both spouses must file as “married filing separately.”


If your spouse died during the year and you have not remarried by the end of the year it is permissible to claim “married filing joint” status.  In the signature section of a joint return filed by a surviving spouse you should write “Filing as surviving spouse.”  The following year, if you have still not remarried, and your dependent child resides with you, you may be eligible to file as a “qualifying widow(er) (see below).  Note that if you are claiming a refund for a deceased taxpayer and you are not a surviving spouse, you must complete form 1310 and attach it to the deceased taxpayer’s return.  You should write “DECEASED” across the top of the return, together with the decedent’s name and the date of death.  Even if  you have not been appointed as personal representative by a court, but you are in charge of the decedent’s property, you file and sign the return as “personal representative.”  If you have been appointed by a court as the personal representative, then you do not have to file form 1310, but you must attach a copy of the court certificate showing you were appointed as personal representative.  Note that as indicated above, a surviving spouse need only sign the return as “Filing as surviving spouse.”


If your spouse died during the year, and you remarried before the end of the year, you may file jointly with your new spouse or claim “married filing separately” (see below).  In either case, the status of the deceased taxpayer is “married filing separately.”


2. Married filing separately: Some taxpayers who are married may elect to file their tax returns separately.  This is a choice the taxpayer and his spouse make.  Note that one spouse may not choose to file a joint return and the other spouse decide to file separately.  Also, note that one spouse is never a dependent of another spouse except for a married taxpayer filing separately whose spouse has no income, is not filing a return, and is not a dependent of another person.


In California, if a married couple decides to file separate returns, then as long as either spouse’s income was earned while married and living with the other spouse, then both spouse’s incomes and expenses are combined and reported one-half to each spouse on each spouse’s separate return.  Note that this provision applies to earned income—specifically, California community property income.  Income that can be identified to a separate property source (i.e., an inheritance) is not equally reported by each spouse.  It is reported by the spouse to whom it was paid. 


Married but Unmarried for Tax Purposes (Head of Household):  In some cases a married person may be unmarried for tax purposes, and thereby have a lower tax liability.  This special rule accounts for married persons who have separated, and are filing separate tax returns.  The person claiming married but unmarried status can take advantage of the favorable standard deduction available for Head of Household status ($6450.00), as opposed to the standard deduction for Married Filing Separately ($3675.00).  Typically, this situation arises for a person whose divorce has not yet been finalized by the end of the year.


In order for a married taxpayer to be considered unmarried for tax purposes, four (4) conditions must be met:


1) The person may not file a joint return;


2) The person must have provided more than half the cost of maintenance of the home for the tax year.  Maintenance paid by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (welfare) is not considered as paid by the person.


The following item are included in determining the cost of maintaining the home: property taxes, mortgage interest (but not principal payments), rent, utilities, upkeep and repairs, property insurance, food eaten at home, and all other ordinary home maintenance expenses.


The following items are not considered as part of the expense of maintaining the home: mortgage principal payments, clothing, medical expenses, educational expenses, life insurance, transportation, food eaten out, and the value of the taxpayer’s own services.


3) The home must be the primary residence of at least one dependent child (a dependent child, here, includes a child for whom the dependency exemption was released to the other spouse), for more than half the year;


4) The spouse of the taxpayer claiming the married but unmarried status must not have lived in the home at all during the last six (6) months of the tax year.


3. Head of Household (with a qualifying person):  You are a “head of household” only if you are not married, you are living with a blood relative (lineal descendent), and you pay for more than one half the cost of maintaining the home with your blood relative.  There are very special rules that apply to the “head of household” status.  Many people erroneously believe they can claim this status simply because they live alone.  This is not true.


The rules for Head of Household status are as follows:


1. You must pay for more than half the cost of maintaining the home in which you and at least one blood relative (the “qualifying person”) lives.  If the blood relative living with you is your own child, generally, you may qualify as a head of household.  The child does not have to be your dependent, but the child must live with you more than half the tax year.


2. If the blood relative is living with you is your parent, you may claim head of household status only if that parent is also your dependent.  The parent does not have to live with you, however.  Therefore, if you are paying for the cost of a nursing home for a parent, for example, you may qualify as head of household (provided, of course, that you are paying for more than half the cost of the parent’s living expenses)


3. If the blood relative is any other person, that person must be your dependent, and live with you more than half the tax year.


4. If you have a married child living with you, you may be a head of household if the married child is your dependent and lived with you more than half the tax year (except that if the only reason the married child is not your dependent is because you voluntarily agreed to allow the other parent take the child as an exemption on his or her tax return).  In that case, you may still qualify as a “head of household,” even though the child is not your dependent for exemption purposes.


Under appropriate circumstances a married person who has separated from his or her spouse may file as Head of Household, although still legally married.  The special rules under these circumstances are described above under the “Married Filing Separately” status.


4. Qualifying widow or widower (with a dependent child):  This filing status is available only to certain taxpayers with a dependent child for two years following the year of the death of a spouse.  Note that these rules differ from the Head of Household status rules which allow you to claim Head of Household if you live with a blood relative who need not be a dependent.  (The IRS effectively allows a widow/widower to claim the married filing joint status for two years after the death of a spouse).  The requirements to fit into this category are as follows:


1. You may only claim this status for the two years following the spouse’s death (and not remarried).  This status is not available for the year of the death of the spouse.


2. You must have paid more than half the cost of maintaining the home of your dependent child for the entire tax year


3. You must have been otherwise entitled to file a joint tax return for the year of death (it is not necessary that a joint return was actually filed).


5. Single Status:  All other taxpayers are “single,” (i.e., unmarried, living alone with no qualifying dependent children).


Note: Limits on Exemption Deductions (2000) (See Pub. 17, p. 31):  The personal and dependency exemptions are phased out by 2% for each $2500.00 ($1250 if MFS), or part thereof that the taxpayer’s AGI exceeds $193,400.00 if MFJ or QW; $161,150.00 if HH; $128,950.00 if S; and $96,700.00 if MFS.  Use the “Deduction for Exemptions Worksheet” (see the instructions for Form 1040) if you if AGI exceeds the amount for your filing status.  If AGI exceeds the above amounts by more than $122,500.00 ($61,250.00 if MFS), the amount of your deduction for exemptions is zero.