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How to Select Your Tax Filing Status

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    A tax filing status helps determine how an individual’s income should be taxed. But choosing the best status for your unique situation isn’t always obvious. Likewise, choosing the wrong filing status can yield fines, interest and other costly penalties. Read how to understand the difference between each of the five statuses and how to land on the right option.

    True, most of us pay taxes. But that doesn’t always make the process simple or clear.

    In fact, even seemingly similar individuals can have vastly different tax returns based on their:

    • income
    • occupations
    • exemptions
    • dependents
    • and more

    As nebulous as taxes seem (even Einstein supposedly thought they were complicated), logic backs every filing status. We’ll help you understand each option and their benefits and even address some of the most common questions around filing statuses.

    It’s time to make taxes less taxing.

    What is a tax filing status?

    A tax filing status determines how an individual’s income is taxed, such as which withholdings apply. Currently, these five statuses exist in the U.S.:

    • single
    • married filing jointly
    • married filing separately
    • head of household
    • qualifying widow(er)

    Regardless of status, the collected taxes are used to fund governmental program and services. However, some statuses may allow taxpayers to qualify for certain tax credits and deductions.

    Likewise, choosing an inaccurate status — and potentially underpaying taxes — can result in costly penalties administered by the IRS.

    What are the different tax filing status options?

    Are you fresh out of college and living on your own for the first time? Or are you the primary provider for three kids? Questions like these can help determine the best filing status for your unique situation. They can also serve as a guide for the specific tax forms you’ll complete.

    Let’s dive into each status, how they work and how they’re taxed.


    Who is eligible?

    The single status is for taxpayers who are unmarried or who have been legally separated as of the last day of the previous tax year.

    How it works

    Single filers are generally unmarried taxpayers who don’t qualify for another status. However, the IRS may even consider married people unmarried if they’ve lived apart from their spouse for the last six months. (At the same time, this situation could qualify an individual as a widow(er) or head of household, which may be a preferred filing status.)

    Tax rates in this status

    2023 tax rates for single taxpayers
    Tax rate Taxable income
    10% $0-$11,000
    12% $11,001-$44,725
    22% $44,726-$95,375
    24% $95,376-$182,100
    32% $182,101-$231,250
    35% $231,251-$578,125
    37% $578,126+

    Married filing jointly

    Who is eligible?

    The married filing jointly status is for married taxpayers who agree with their spouse to file a combined return.

    How it works

    Married taxpayers file just one tax return. On this joint return, both individuals report their total income and deduct their combined expenses.

    Tax rates in this status

    2023 tax rates for married taxpayers filing jointly
    Tax rate Taxable income
    10% $0-$22,000
    12% $22,001-$89,450
    22% $89,451-$190,750
    24% $190,751-$364,200
    32% $364,201-$462,500
    35% $462,501-$693,750
    37% $693,751+

    Married filing separately

    Who is eligible?

    The married filing separately status is for married taxpayers who wish to manage their own taxes. Some may choose this option if it results in fewer taxes overall.

    How it works

    Like a single filer, each married taxpayer would file a separate return. This status also allows for married individuals who don’t agree to file jointly.

    Tax rates in this bracket

    2023 tax rates for married taxpayers filing separately
    Tax rate Taxable income
    10% $0-$11,000
    12% $11,001-$44,725
    22% $44,726-$95,375
    24% $95,376-$182,100
    32% $182,101-$231,250
    35% $231,251-$346,875
    37% $346,876+

    Head of household

    Who is eligible?

    To qualify as a head of household, a taxpayer must:

    • be unmarried by the last day of the tax year
    • have paid over half of all household costs throughout the tax year
    • have lived with a qualified dependent (excluding dependent parents) for more than half of the tax year

    Because of the nuance of this status, taxpayers should always verify their eligibility with a licensed tax professional.

    How it works

    This status is primarily made for single, divorced and legally separated taxpayers who have custody of their children. However, this tax status can also apply to individuals who care for their dependent parents or relatives under certain conditions.

    Tax rates in this bracket

    2023 tax rates for head of household taxpayers
    Tax rate Taxable income
    10% $0-$15,700
    12% $15,701-$59,850
    22% $59,851-$95,350
    24% $95,351-$182,100
    32% $182,101-$231,250
    35% $231,251-$578,100
    37% $578,101+

    Qualifying widow(er)

    Who is eligible?

    To file as a qualifying widow(er), a taxpayer’s spouse must have passed away within the last two years. To follow an example from the IRS, if a spouse died in 2012 and a taxpayer hasn’t remarried, they may file as a qualifying widow(er) in 2013 and 2014.

    How it works

    Provided a taxpayer is eligible, the qualifying widow(er) status follows the same tax bracket as the married filing jointly status, which is typically more favorable. Essentially, this status allows a surviving spouse to keep a similar tax status while facing a recent hardship.

    Tax rates in this bracket

    2023 tax rates for qualifying widow(er)s
    Tax rate Taxable income
    10% $0-$22,000
    12% $22,001-$89,450
    22% $89,451-$190,750
    24% $190,751-$364,200
    32% $364,201-$462,500
    35% $462,501-$693,750
    37% $693,751+

    How to determine your filing status

    Even after you understand the differences between filing statuses, you still need to consider which option will be best for you.

    For instance, taxpayers who went through a relatively recent divorce and have children may understandably be unsure about their eligibility from reading the IRS definitions of each status alone. Likewise, any individual who’s fairly certain about their status may still want to ask themselves questions about their situation to better justify a decision.

    Whether you’re completely unsure or just need a refresher, the following questions can help you pick a tax filing status with confidence.

    Are you considered “single” or “married” per the IRS’s definition?

    Determining if you’re considered single or married could eliminate over half of the available statuses. Remember, single taxpayers are those who haven’t been married or are divorced or legally separated by the last day of the relevant tax year (Dec. 31).

    Conversely, married taxpayers need to be legally married on or before the last day of the tax year to qualify for the two relevant statuses. Perhaps most importantly, if you qualify as married, your status must reflect this. If you were legally married by a state — or even by another country — you should file accordingly.

    Did you get divorced or did your spouse die during the tax year?

    Taxpayers who have divorced or legally separated from their spouses before the last day of the tax year are likely eligible for the single filing status. However, those who had children and maintained custody may qualify as a head of the household instead. This distinction is key and can yield significantly different tax implications.

    On the other hand, taxpayers whose spouses passed away in the most recent tax year may file as a qualifying widow(er) for the next two years. Again, the tax brackets for this status are identical to the married filing jointly rates. This status will often be more favorable than filing as a single taxpayer, but those who opt for it should confirm they still fall within the two-year timing requirement.

    Do you qualify as a head of household?

    The head of household status is often a more favorable filing status, given the financial burden qualifying individuals tend to face throughout the tax year. This also means this status has one of the highest bars for eligibility.

    You may qualify as a head of household if you:

    • care for a qualifying person (usually a child or dependent parent)
    • furnish over one-half of the household expenses for yourself and a qualifying person
    • file separately from your spouse

    While many head of household may be unmarried, married individuals may still qualify for this status. However, only one spouse may claim a qualifying person. As such, taxpayers married to each other can’t both qualify as a head of household.

    The IRS maintains tiebreaker rules to determine which taxpayer would get to claim the qualifying person. Even so, it’s best practice to verify this status with a licensed tax professional.

    Pros and cons of filing jointly or separately from a spouse

    While being married may simplify your available statuses, you still have to decide whether it’s best to file jointly or separately. Consider these advantages and drawbacks of each option.

    Pros of filing separately

    In certain situations, filing separately from your spouse may result in a higher return for your household. For example, if one spouse makes significantly more than the other, the lower-earning taxpayer may qualify for certain deduction or credits that they otherwise wouldn’t had they filed jointly.

    Additionally, married taxpayers who are preparing for divorce may find it easier to move forward by filing separately. This approach could serve to better separate and distinguish their finances.

    Cons of filing separately

    The biggest disadvantage to filing separately from a spouse pertains to tax rates, which are generally less favorable than those for filing jointly. Plus, filing separately could disqualify some couples for certain tax credits and deductions.

    Pros of filing jointly

    Perhaps most importantly, standard deductions tend to be higher for taxpayers who file jointly. This status can also make certain couples eligible for tax credits made to support families.

    Cons of filing jointly

    Though the disadvantages may be sparse, taxpayers who file jointly should understand that both individuals are responsible for the entire tax owed on the return. In the event of noncompliance, this also means each spouse is liable for and susceptible to:

    • fines
    • interest
    • penalties
    • audits

    Tax filing status: FAQ

    How do I check my tax filing status?

    Ideally, you’ll know what your tax filing status is by the time you file. However, if you wish to check the status of your confirmed tax refund, the IRS offers a tool to do so. It only requires your:

    • Social Security number
    • filing status
    • exact refund amount

    What filing status should I choose?

    The ideal tax filing status will depend on your specific situation. However, knowing if you’re single, married, a recent widow(er) or the primary supporter of your household, per the IRS, will help guide your decision.

    Which filing status withholds the most taxes?

    In most cases, single taxpayers will have more taxes withheld from their paycheck than married couples.

    Can a person who files as single claim someone else as a dependent on their taxes?

    No, but if you are financially supporting a child or parent who is considered a qualifying person by the IRS, you may be eligible for the head of household filing status instead.

    Which filing status gives the biggest refund?

    An individual’s refund factors in many variables — not just their filing status. Still, married taxpayers filing jointly and qualifying widow(er)s tend to have the most favorable tax rates, which could translate to a higher potential refund. But again, these statuses alone don’t guarantee a generous refund.

    How do I change my filing status?

    Most taxpayers will simply update their status when they begin to file each year. However, certain situations may allow a taxpayer to file an amended return, which is used not just to address changes to one’s filing status, but also their:

    • income
    • deductions
    • credits
    • tax liability

    Explore Paycom’s resources to learn more about taxes, compliance and more.

    DISCLAIMER: The information provided herein does not constitute the provision of legal advice, tax advice, accounting services or professional consulting of any kind. The information provided herein should not be used as a substitute for consultation with professional legal, tax, accounting or other professional advisers. Before making any decision or taking any action, you should consult a professional adviser who has been provided with all pertinent facts relevant to your particular situation and for your particular state(s) of operation.