Demystifying Your Filing Status: Expert Advice from Michael S. Gawel, CPA, JD




After entering your Social Security number choosing your filing status is the first thing all taxpayers must do. There are five choices: single, married filing jointly, married filing separate, head of household and surviving spouse.

Single is for an individual who on 12/31 is unmarried and not a head of household (no dependents). An individual who is legally divorced or legally separated under the law on the last day of the year is considered unmarried and may file single.

Married individuals may elect to file a joint return if they are married on the last day of the tax year, even if one has no income. If a spouse dies during the year, the taxpayers are considered married for the whole year. The surviving spouse may elect to file a joint return for the decedent’s final year. All gross income, deductions and credits of both spouses are combined on a joint return and the tax is computed on the aggregate taxable income. The tax calculated on a joint return is usually lower than the combined tax if the spouse files separately.

Married filing separately can be elected rather than filing a joint return. Spouses that file separate returns will generally have a higher combined tax than spouses that file a joint return because certain tax benefits may not be claimed if taxpayers file separately. The difference in the tax rate brackets for joint and separate returns result in higher income tax rates for married individuals filing separately. There are circumstances under which married taxpayers might reduce their tax liability by filing separate returns. Taxpayers who file joint returns are jointly and severally liable for the tax on the return, filing separately may be preferable if one spouse does not want to be liable for the other spouse’s tax liability, if they are getting separated, one is going to prison or one has pending lawsuits.

Head of Household status entitles the taxpayer to a higher standard deduction than single. To qualify for Head of Household:

  1. Taxpayer is unmarried or considered unmarried
  2. Taxpayer maintains a household for a dependent
  3. The qualifying individual lives with the taxpayer in their home for 183 days or more

A married taxpayer can qualify for Head of Household if their spouse was not a member of the household for the last six months of the tax year. To maintain a household the taxpayer must: furnish more than 50% of the cost of maintaining the home and at least one of the qualifying individuals lives there for more than 50% of the year, the cost of the residence, including taxes or rent, utilities, insurance, and repairs.

A paid preparer, like me, is subject to a penalty if they fail to comply with certain due diligence requirements for any return claiming Head of Household filing status.

For questions:


Phone: 716-622-0700


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