The filing status you claim when you file your federal income tax return has a big impact on how much tax you owe, or how big your refund will be. There are five filing statuses and they are all based on your marital status. If you are married, you typically have two choices: you can file a joint return or separate returns. Married couples usually don't have the option of using the head of household status, even if one spouse didn't work.
Married Filing Jointly
The married filing jointly filing status gives married couples the highest standard deduction. The standard deduction for married filing jointly was $11,900 compared to $8,700 for the head of household status for the 2012 tax year. You can file a joint return with your wife, even if she did not work at all during the tax year.
Married Filing Separately
While filing a joint return with your wife gives you the highest standard deduction and usually provides the lowest combined tax obligation, it also makes both you and your wife responsible for the entire tax bill even if your wife didn't work and you were responsible for all of the income. As a married couple, you have the option of filing separate returns, and it is a good idea if your non-working wife doesn't want to be responsible for your taxes. If you file separately, and your wife did not work and had no unearned income, such as dividends or interest, she might not be required to file a tax return, but in most cases your combine tax bill will be higher if you file separately, rather than jointly.
Head of Household
The head of household filing status is reserved for people who are either unmarried or "considered unmarried" as of the last day of the year. Being unmarried seems fairly obvious. If you are single, divorced or widowed, you are unmarried. Being "considered unmarried" is a bit trickier. The Internal Revenue Service considers you to be unmarried, even if you are still legally married, if your spouse didn't live with you for the last six months of the year; you paid more than half of the cost of keeping up your home; your child, stepchild or foster child has lived with you in your home for at least six months out of the year; and you don't file a joint return.
The Bottom Line
Your wife's work status has nothing to do with whether you can file your federal income tax return using the head of household status. The only way you could be married and file as head of household would be if you were considered unmarried.
Mike Parker is a full-time writer, publisher and independent businessman. His background includes a career as an investments broker with such NYSE member firms as Edward Jones & Company, AG Edwards & Sons and Dean Witter. He helped launch DiscoverCard as one of the company's first merchant sales reps.