Can You File Taxes as Head of Household? Learn the Rules

When you file a tax return, you have to pick a filing status. The status options include:

  • Single
  • Head of household
  • Married filing jointly
  • Married filing separately
  • Qualifying widow(er)

Most of those tax filing statuses seem pretty straight forward. However, the head of household status can be very confusing.

Filing as head of household does come with some benefits.

That said:

You need to make sure you actually qualify for the status before you simply check the box and file your tax return.

There are rules you must follow to qualify and they aren’t very straightforward.

As always, if you don’t want to deal with the hassle of figuring this out yourself or you don’t understand the requirements, consult a tax professional that can look at your specific situation and make a determination based on your circumstances.

Rules to File as Head of Household

The rules for qualifying to file with a filing status of head of household are detailed in IRS Publication 501, Dependents, Standard Deduction and Filing Information.

The below rules are simply a summary and do not include all possibilities or exceptions.

You may qualify to file as head of household if you meet all three of the following requirements:

1. Unmarried or considered unmarried

The first thing you must verify is that you were either unmarried or considered unmarried as of the last day of the year.

If you legitimately aren’t married, this is easy.

However, even if you are technically married, you may be considered unmarried in certain circumstances. (More on that further below.)

2. Cost of keeping up your home

The costs of keeping up your home would seem pretty simple, but you’re only allowed to count the costs the IRS specifies.

You can view a worksheet on how to do this here.

The IRS counts the following costs as costs you can count toward keeping up your home:

  • Property taxes
  • Mortgage interest expense
  • Rent
  • Utility charges
  • Repairs and/or maintenance
  • Property insurance
  • Food eaten in the home
  • Other household expenses

The IRS specifically excludes you from being able to count the following expenses:

  • Clothing
  • Education
  • Medical treatment
  • Vacations
  • Life insurance
  • Transportation

As long as you pay at least half of the qualifying costs of keeping up your home, you pass this part of the qualifications.

3. A qualifying person lived with you

Finally, a qualifying person has to have lived with you in the home for more than half of the year, except for temporary absences under special circumstances.

Special circumstances can include:

  • illness
  • education
  • business
  • vacation
  • military service
  • detention in a juvenile facility

In order for an absence to be considered temporary, it must be reasonable to assume the person will return to the home after their temporary absence ends.

The definition of a qualifying person can get quite complex due to many IRS definitions involved. That said, here’s a high-level overview.

In general:

A qualifying person is a qualifying child or a qualifying relative.

A qualifying child is considered a qualifying person if they are single or are married and you can claim them as a dependent.

To find out if a child is considered qualifying, they must pass a five-part test.

1. Relationship test

The child must be your son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, or a descendant of any of them OR your brother, sister, half brother, half sister, stepbrother, stepsister or a descendant of any of them.

2. Age test

A child must be under age 19 at the end of the year and younger than you, a student under age 24 at the end of the year and younger than you or permanently and totally disabled at any time of the year, regardless of age.

3. Residency test

Your child must have lived with you for more than half of the year with the exception of temporary absences.

4. Support test

The child cannot have provided more than half of their own support for the year.

5. Joint return test

The child cannot file a joint tax return for the year.

A qualifying relative must have lived with you for more than half of the year, be related to you in one of the following ways and you must be able to claim them as a dependent.

Qualifying relationships include:

  • Your child, stepchild, foster child or a descendant of any of them
  • A legally adopted child
  • Your brother, sister, half brother, half sister, stepbrother or stepsister
  • Your father, mother, grandparent or other direct ancestor, but not a foster parent
  • Your stepfather or stepmother
  • A son or daughter of your brother or sister
  • A son or daughter of your half brother or half sister
  • A brother or sister of your father or mother
  • Your son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in law

The above relationships continue after death or divorce of your spouse if they were established based on marriage.

Qualifying Person Exception for Your Father or Mother Not Living With You

Your mother or father can still count as a qualifying person even if they don’t live with you.

In order to qualify:

You must be able to claim your mother or father as a dependent on your taxes.

Additionally, you must pay more than half of the cost of keeping up your mother’s or father’s main home for the entire year.

If you do both of these, they qualify even though they don’t live with you.

What It Takes to Be Considered Unmarried

To be considered unmarried for head of household status, you must meet the following requirements:

1. You file a separate tax return

This test is easy. To pass, you simply have to file a tax return separate from your spouse.

2. You paid more than half of the cost of keeping up your home

This test is the same as the test listed above in the original three requirements to file as head of household.

3. Your spouse didn’t live in your home for the last six months of the year

If your spouse didn’t actually live in your home for the last six months of the year, you may qualify.

However, you might not qualify even if your spouse didn’t live in your home at all during the six month period.

Believe it or not:

Your spouse may have been considered to live in your home even if they didn’t actually live there.

If your spouse was considered temporarily absent due to special circumstances as noted above, they are considered as living in your home.

4. Your home was the main home of a qualifying child for more than half of the year

Thankfully, this test is pretty straight forward.

You pass if your home was the main home of your child, stepchild or foster child for more than half of the year.

There are particular rules that apply if your child was born or died during the year, as well as for temporary absences.

5. You must be able to claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes

The final requirement to be considered unmarried is the ability to claim the eligible child as a dependent.

Technically, you may still pass this requirement if you meet the test but can’t claim the child as a dependent on your taxes.

The rules are complex, but if the noncustodial parent can claim the child using rules relating to Children of divorced or separated parents under the Qualifying Child section of this publication or using the rules in Support Test for Children of Divorced or Separated Parents under the Qualifying Relative section of the publication, you may still pass this test.

Benefits of Filing as Head of Household

Filing with a head of household status can provide some major tax benefits versus filing single or married filing separately.

Larger standard deduction

For the 2019 tax year, the standard deduction for a person filing as head of household is $18,350. That’s $6,150 more than the standard deduction for those filing single or as married filing separately.

Unfortunately, you won’t benefit from this higher standard deduction if your itemized deductions exceed $18,350. However, you should see some benefit if your itemized deductions are less than $18,350.

Different tax brackets

While the tax rates are the same for all filing status, the brackets of income taxed at each rate may be different. Filing as head of household will also generally help you with this aspect of your taxes.

For the 2019 tax year, here are the tax bracket ranges from the different tax rates for head of household, single and married filing separately.

Federal Income Tax Brackets - 2019

Rate Single or Married Filing Separately Married Filing Jointly Heads of Household
For taxable income over the below amounts #colspan# #colspan#
10% $0 $0 $0
12% $9,700 $19,400 $13,850
22% $39,475 $78,950 $52,850
24% $84,200 $168,400 $84,200
32% $160,725 $321,450 $160,700
35% $204,100 $408,200 $204,100
37% $510,300 $612,350 $510,300

As you can see, filing as head of household allows more of your income to be taxed at lower rates.

Only File as Head of Household If You Actually Qualify

To be clear:

Just because you think you’re the head of your household doesn’t qualify you to file as such on your tax return.

Filing as head of household can be beneficial, but only if you actually qualify to file with this filing status.  

Make sure you meet the requirements before filing so you don’t run into any nasty surprises if the IRS questions your filing status later on.

If you have any question as to whether you qualify to file as head of household, talk to a tax professional. The tax professional can look at your specific situation and see whether you qualify or not for the tax year in question.

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