Taxes 101: What Filing Status Should you Use?

Taxes 101: What Filing Status Should you Use?

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Unmarried people without dependents must file under the Single status. Everyone else will have a choice as to the status they file under.

Here is a quick run down of the filing statuses and the upside and downside of each:

Head of Household

If you are unmarried and have a dependent who lives with you for whom you provide more than half of that dependent’s support, you can file as Head of Household.

Upside – your income is taxed at a lower rate than it would be taxed under the Single status.

Downside –  the IRS may challenge your head of household status on the grounds that you don’t have a true dependent or that someone else living in your household provided more than one half of the dependent’s support.

Married Filing Jointly

If you are married on the last day of a tax year you can file your tax return using the Married Filing Jointly status.

Upside – combined taxable income will be taxed at a lower rate than the aggregate of the spouses’ separate taxable incomes would be taxed were the returns filed under the Married Filing Separate status.

Downside – each spouse is jointly and severally liable for the taxes due on a jointly filed return without regard to which spouse earned more money or paid more taxes during the tax year.

Married Filing Separately

Married people who do not wish to file a joint tax return must file under the Married Filing Separate status. This requirement is what gives rise to the so-called “marriage penalty.” 

The tax rates under this filing status are higher than the tax rates under any of the other filing statuses, including Head of Household and Single.

Upside – the taxpayer is not jointly and severally liable for the unpaid taxes of his or her spouse. If you have paid all of your taxes and your spouse has not, you might want to consider filing separately.

Downside – the tax rates for married filing separate are the highest of all of the statuses.

Practice pointer: If you are hired to represent a married taxpayer who hasn’t file his tax returns in several years and his wife has not worked (or has worked and has paid the taxes on her income), you should consider having the spouses file separate returns to avoid adversely affecting both spouses should a lien, levy or other IRS enforced collection action ensue.

Qualifying Widow(er) with Dependent Child

If your spouse died during 2005 or 2006, you have a qualifying child, and meet certain other conditions, you may be able to choose this filing status.

Click on 2008 Tax Rate Schedules to calculate your taxes under each of the filing statuses.

About Peter Pappas

Peter is a tax attorney and certified public acccountant with over 20 years experience helping taxpayers resolve their IRS and state tax problems.

He has represented thousands of taxpayers who have been experiencing difficulty dealing with the Internal Revenue Service or State tax officials.

He is a member of the American Association of Attorney-Certified Public Accountants, the Florida Bar Association and The Florida Institute of Certified Public Accountants and is admitted to practice before the United States Tax Court, the United States Supreme Court, U.S. District Courts - Middle District of Florida


  1. JAMES BURKE says:

    My wife died in sept 2010 what filling status do i use

  2. Dear James,

    Thank you for visiting.

    For what year? If its for 2011, you will have to file either as head of household or single. If it’s your 2010 return, you can file either as married filing jointly or married filing separately.

    Check out the head of household rules.


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