Determining Your IRS Filing Status On Your Federal Income Tax Return

By Michael Diaz. May 7th 2016

When you sit down to fill out your federal income tax return, the first thing you have to do is to declare your filing status. But what is your filing status and how does it affect your taxes?

What Is Your Filing Status

It is important for you to know the differences between the five federal filing statuses because they can affect how much money you will have to pay in taxes. You can also get into some hot water with the IRS if you select the incorrect filing status on your tax return.

The IRS has five different filing statuses that you can select when filling out your federal tax return.

1. Single

People who are unmarried, divorced or legally separated on the last day of the year should generally file as single unless they qualify for another filing status. See the descriptions of head of household and qualifying widow(er) for exceptions to this rule.

2. Married Filing Jointly

If you are married, you have the option to file a joint tax return with your spouse. You should note that your marital status on the last day of the year determines your tax filing status for the whole year. Therefore, as long as you are married on the last day of the year, you can file under the married filing jointly tax status. Conversely, if you get divorced on December 31, you cannot file your taxes using the married filing jointly status.

In most situations, it is advantageous for married couples to file jointly. This is because joint filers generally receive a larger tax deduction than do married couples who file their taxes separately. Additionally, if you file jointly, you only need to submit one tax return which reduces your hassle factor.

If your spouse dies during the year and you do not remarry, you can likely file your taxes under the married filing jointly status to benefit from the larger tax deduction. This only applies to the tax year during which your spouse died. You should check with the IRS to make sure you are eligible before filing.

3. Married Filing Separately

There are some situations where it might be advantageous for a married couple to file their taxes separately. However, since it is generally more favorable to file together if you are married, you might want to consult with a tax adviser before deciding to use the married filing separately status.

Note that filing your taxes separately requires the submission of two separate tax returns.

4. Head of Household

This status is generally for taxpayers who are unmarried and pay more than half of the costs required for maintaining a home. To qualify for this status, you must be living with at least one person whom you can claim as a dependent. Dependents include children, stepchildren, grandchildren, step-grandchildren and other dependent relatives.

If you are married but live apart from your spouse for a portion of the year, you may be considered unmarried for tax purposes. If this applies to you, you may be able to file your taxes as head of household even though you are not divorced or legally separated. See the IRS website for more information.

Note that filing as head of household generally results in a larger tax break than does filing as single so make sure that you take advantage of it if you are eligible.

5. Qualifying Widow(er) With A Dependent Child

This status is available for taxpayers whose spouse has recently died. If your spouse died within the last two years and you are responsible for over half of the costs of keeping up your home, you may qualify as a surviving spouse as long as you are living with least one dependent and have not remarried. After two years, you may be able to file as a head of household.

Tips On Selecting Your Filing Status

Do Not Lie

If the IRS finds out that you purposefully chose the incorrect filing status to reap a larger tax benefit, you could get into serious trouble. Additionally, even if you mistakenly selected the wrong filing status, you might be subjected to an IRS audit which is a drag that you do not want to deal with.

Choose The Most Advantageous Filing Status

If you are eligible for multiple filing statuses, you should choose the one that gives you the most tax benefit. This is not wrong or illegal. In fact, the IRS recommends it. If you are eligible for multiple filing statuses and are unsure about which will give you the largest tax benefit, you may want to consult a tax advisor.

If You File Jointly, Make Sure That You Trust Your Spouse

If you file your taxes under the married filing jointly status, make sure that you have full trust in your spouse. Because you are filing together, you will both be liable for any errors or intentional misinformation on your tax return. Therefore, you should make sure that your spouse does not make any errors or omissions regarding his or her income. If you have any doubts, you might want to consider using the married filing separately status.

Knowing which filing status you should select on your tax return is important. Selecting the correct status can save you a significant amount of money. It can also prevent you from getting into trouble with the IRS. Take the time to get familiar which each of the statuses and you’ll reap the benefits when tax season rolls around.


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