Armanino Blog

Your Relationship Status, From the IRS’s View

February 13, 2013

When it comes to filing taxes, the IRS makes a distinction between being married couples, single individuals and domestic partners and civil unions. Below is a summary of filing statuses to help you choose the right tax filing status.

The Basics

The IRS offers the following filing statuses:

  • Single
  • Married Filing Jointly (MFJ)
  • Married Filing Separately (MFS)
  • Head of Household (HOH)
  • Qualifying Widow(er) (QW)

Individuals who are not married must file as either Single, HOH or QW.

Married individuals must file as either MFJ, MFS or HOH.

When Are You Considered Married?

Many couples mistakenly believe they have a choice of filing single or married in the year they get married. However, tax law is clear that marital filing status is determined on the last day of the tax year (generally December 31). A person is considered married for the entire year if on the last day of the year:

  • Both spouses are married and living together; or
  • The spouses are married and living apart, but not under a decree of divorce

This rule applies to both opposite and same-sex married couples.

If you are considered married, you must file as either MFJ, MFS or, on rare occasions, HOH.

Married Joint or Married Separate?

Better Together

If you are married, you and your spouse have the option of filing as either MFJ or MFS. Often, spouses will choose the filing status that results in the lowest combined tax. This is almost always the MFJ status. This is due to the "averaging" effect of combining two incomes, which can bring some income out of a potentially higher tax bracket if the couples filed MFS. If one spouse has $75,000 of taxable income and the other has just $15,000, filing jointly instead of separately for 2015 can save $2,245 in taxes. In addition, the items below are not available to individuals that file as MFS:

  • Child and Dependent Care Credit
  • Adoption Expense Credit
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Credit for the Elderly or the Disabled (unless you and your spouse lived apart for the entire year)
  • Qualified Education Loan Interest Deduction
  • IRA Contributions (if either you or your spouse was covered by an employer retirement plan)
  • Exclusion for Adoption Assistance Payments
  • Exclusion of interest income from series EE or Series I savings bonds you used for higher education expenses

Separate But Not Equal

In addition to forgoing the items above, if you decide to file MFS, you will not go back to using the single rates that applied before you were married. Instead, each spouse must use the MFS rates. These rates are based on brackets that are exactly half of the MFJ brackets, which almost always end up being much less favorable than the "single" rates.

On rare occasions, the MFS status can yield tax savings for a couple. These situations occur when one spouse has significant amounts of medical expenses, casualty losses, or "miscellaneous itemized deductions" and the other spouse has significant income. Since these deductions are reduced by a percentage of adjusted gross income (AGI), if the deductions are isolated on the separate return of a spouse, that spouse's lower (separate) AGI can cause a larger portion of the deductions to be allowed.

Joint & Several Liability

While filing MFJ often results in you paying less total tax, it also makes each of you jointly and severally liable for the tax on your combined income, including any additional assessed tax, interest and most penalties. This means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount. Although provisions in the law offer relief from joint and several liabilities, each provision has its limitations. Even if a joint return results in less tax, you may file a separate return if you want to be certain of being responsible only for your own tax.

Filing HOH When You Are Married

It is sometimes permissible to file as HOH even though you are legally married. HOH is often preferable to filing as MFS due to the slew of reasons listed above. To file as HOH while you are married, you must meet all of the following requirements:

  • Your spouse cannot have been a member of the household for the last six months of the year
  • Your home must be the principal living place of a child of yours whom you can claim as your dependent (or could have claimed as your dependent except that you signed away your right to the exemption to the child's other parent), for more than half the year
  • You must furnish more than half of the cost of maintaining the home. This includes all house-related costs, plus the cost of food consumed in the home

Note that if both you and your spouse meet these tests (e.g., you have more than one child and each has custody of a child), both of you can qualify to file as HOH. If only one meets the tests, then the non-qualifying spouse must file as MFS.

Domestic Partners & Civil Unions

Domestic and civil union partners cannot file joint returns together (MFJ or MFS). A domestic or civil union partner can file as head of household if he or she meets the requirements for that filing status. However, maintaining a home for the other partner, or for a child of the partner who is not the taxpayer's biological or adopted child, doesn't entitle a taxpayer to file as head of household.


Learn more about the tax implications of divorce, including filing status considerations, on the IRS’s page Divorced or Separated Individuals.

There are many things to consider when determining your tax filing status, especially if you are married. There are also state tax implications that should be considered. Consult with your tax professional to determine the most tax advantageous filing status. For questions or assistance, contact our experts.

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