When you file your taxes as single, the IRS assumes you are a single person taking care of yourself. You may have children or live with other people, but you must generally file under the single heading if someone else substantially helps you to support them or they largely support themselves. If, however, you are single but pay the majority of the household expenses for your children, parents or other dependents, you can claim the head of household filing status rather than single. As the head of household, you will have a lower tax rate and a higher standard deduction than someone filing as single. Although it's usually beneficial to file as head of household if you can, it's important to make sure that you truly qualify before filing.
Who Is the Head of the House?
If you're single and live by yourself, you may think that you're also the head of your household. After all, there is no one else there to challenge you for the title. The IRS views things a bit differently, however. In order to qualify as a single taxpayer, you must either be single or divorced on the last day of the tax year. The IRS will also consider you unmarried if you are legally separated and live in a state that acknowledges this legal status. As of 2018, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Texas do not recognize legal separation.
In order to file as head of household, you must first qualify as single or unmarried. Married filers cannot claim this status even if they file separately. Being single isn't enough, though. In order to claim the head of household status, someone else who qualifies as your dependent must live with you. This person can be a qualifying child or a qualifying relative as defined by IRS rules.
If you're single and have qualifying people living with you, you're almost there but you're not quite done. To name yourself the head of the household, you must also have paid more than 50 percent of the annual household maintenance expenses for yourself and your qualifying dependents during the year. Household expenses include rent, mortgage payments, utilities, groceries, repairs and property taxes. If you're single and your minor children live with you, you may claim head of household if you paid most of their support. If, however, you receive child support payments that covered half of their care or more, you can't claim the head of household status. The same holds true if your parents or another relative lived with you. If you paid most of your parents' expenses, you're likely eligible for the head of household status. If they paid for half or more of their own expenses, however, you may not be.
Filing Status Exceptions
The tax code contains some special rules that may impact your filing status. You cannot count yourself as single if you're married and your spouse's absence is temporary. If, for example, your spouse spends the bulk of the tax year living somewhere else because he is going to school, serving in the military or receiving inpatient medical treatment, the IRS still considers the two of you married. You can't claim single or head of household when filing your taxes.
Birth, death and even kidnappings can also impact your filing status. If a qualifying dependent died during the tax year, you may still count her as a qualifying dependent for your head of household deduction for that year. As long as she met the qualifying dependent and relative tests and you paid more than half of her living expenses when she was alive, she still counts as your dependent. The same holds true for babies born, children adopted and dependents who moved in mid-year.
If you have a child who would have made you eligible for the head of household status but that child was kidnapped, you may still have the option of filing as the head of household. It may seem strange, but the IRS will allow you to use this filing status so long as you meet two conditions. First, the kidnapped child must have lived with you for more than half of the year in which he was kidnapped. Second, law enforcement must believe that the kidnapper is not a relative of the child. If these conditions exist, you can continue to file as head of household until your child returns, turns 18 or is officially declared deceased.
In order to claim the head of household filing status rather than single, you must pay more than half of the cost of supporting another person. The catch is that the money used to pay these expenses must come from your earned income or money you earned investing or participating in business activities. Bills you paid with money received from public assistance programs don't count as household expenses that you paid.
There is one more exception to the head of household rules you should know about, and it applies to your parents. Perhaps your parents don't live with you because they need special care. That doesn't mean that you don't support them financially. If your parent or parents lived in a nursing home or care facility but you paid more than half the cost of housing them there, you can claim the head of household filing status even though they didn't live with you.
Single and Head of Household in 2018
In 2017, Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This new law enacted several changes for your 2018 taxes, which you will file in 2019. This bill made some big changes to the tax law, one of which is the elimination of exemptions for qualifying dependents. Although you can no longer take a tax deduction for your qualifying dependents, the rules for claiming head of household haven't changed. Anyone who was your qualifying dependent before still is, but the deduction for that person is $0 now.
Single and Head of Household in 2017
Although many parts of the tax law seem to change all the time, the rules regarding filing status have remained consistent for many years. If you received an extension of the filing deadline or need to file an amended return for a previous tax year, you need not worry that the rules for filing single or head of household have changed. It's always best, however, to make sure you find and work from documents and publications that correspond to the tax year with which you're dealing.
If you discover that you claimed head of household when you shouldn't have, file an amended return to change your filing status. You have three years from the date you filed your return or two years from the date you paid the tax to amend a return. The IRS will use the latest of these two dates.
Know that you can amend a return to change your status from head of household to single, but it may increase the amount of tax you owe. The IRS can ask for the additional tax due plus interest since your payment will technically be late. Generally, however, the IRS is willing to work with taxpayers who have made honest mistakes. If you now owe more than you can pay, the IRS may work out a payment plan or lower your interest to help you out.
- eFile.com: IRS Head of Household Filing Status
- MarketWatch: Have Kids? 5 Ways the New Tax Law Affects You
- IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status
- IRS: Publication 501 (2017), Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- LegalMatch: What is Legal Separation or Marital Separation?
- Zacks Investment Research: Penalty for Filing Head of Household Incorrectly
- IRS: Ten Facts on Filing an Amended Tax Return
Michelle earned her accounting degree summa cum laude and has extensive experience in business management and accounting. Entrepreneurship is in her blood, and her work focuses on helping small businesses successfully compete in a big market. Michelle also knows the value of a dollar and enjoys helping readers understand how best to maximize their money and enjoy a healthy financial life. Her work appears Chron's small business site. She has also worked on small business blogs for a national insurance chain.