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What You Need to Know About Filing Head of Household

For IRS purposes, a head of household is generally an unmarried taxpayer who has dependents and paid for more than half the costs of the home. This tax filing status commonly includes single parents and divorced or legally separated parents (by the last day of the year) with custody. It can also be an adult who is supporting a parent or other relative under certain circumstances. These certain circumstances can be tricky to understand. Also, people’s situations can be complicated. What if your spouse dies, leaving you to raise your children? Do you still file jointly or do you file as a head of household? (The year of the death, you should file jointly.) Or what if you are divorced and share custody with your ex? (Only one parent can claim the children as dependents; who that is should be part of the divorce settlement.)

Why is it important to know if you qualify for head of household status? If you do qualify, you’ll likely have a lower tax bill. In this article, we’ll clarify who can claim head of household status, explain the benefits and answer some FAQ. For more help with your tax planning, consider consulting  a financial advisor.

Head of Household: Who Can File?

There are three specific guidelines the IRS expects you to meet to qualify as a head of household (HOH).

First, you have to be single or considered unmarried by the last day of the tax year. The IRS considers you unmarried if you meet the following criteria:

  • You’re divorced or legally separated.
  • Your spouse didn’t live with you during the last six months of the year.
  • You and your spouse file separate tax returns.

If the circumstances of your separation are temporary, the IRS will consider you married for tax purposes. Qualifying temporary separations include military deployment, staying in a medical treatment facility or going to college.

Second, you need to have paid more than half the costs of keeping up a home for the year. That includes your rent or mortgage payment, property taxes, utilities, repairs, maintenance and groceries. You can’t include things like clothing, life insurance or transportation. Receiving child support or alimony doesn’t prevent you from claiming head of household as long as you’re paying more than 50% of your household costs from your own income or savings.

Finally, you need to have a qualifying dependent living in the home with you for more than half the year. For many people who file as head of household, their qualifying dependent is a child. A qualifying child can be your biological child, stepchild, foster child, sibling, step sibling, half sibling or a descendant of one of the aforementioned relatives. The child also needs to be under the age of 19 (or under the age of 24 if a full-time student). You can also claim these relatives as your qualifying dependent if the person is permanently and totally disabled, regardless of age. If the dependent, though, is a sibling, he or she must be younger than you and their gross income must be less than $4,300.

Other non-child qualifying dependents include a parent, step parent, niece, nephew, aunt, uncle and daughter-, son-, mother- or father-in-law. Note that you can claim a parent as your dependent even if the parent doesn’t live with you, as long as you pay for half the costs of their home, including if they live in a nursing home. The same is true for a child who is away at college. Again, they cannot have gross incomes in excess of $4,300.

Head of Household Status Advantages

What You Need to Know About Filing Head of Household

Claiming “head of household” as your filing status (versus filing as single or married filing separately) benefits you in two ways. First, you’ll get a lower tax rate. For tax year 2020, for example, the 12% tax rate applies to single filers with an adjusted gross income that’s between $9,876 and $40,125. If you file head of household, however, you can earn up to $53,700 before being bumped out of the 12% tax bracket.

Head of household filers also benefit from a higher standard deduction. For the 2020 tax year, the deduction for single filers is $12,400, but it climbs to $18,650 for those filing head of household. Deductions reduce your taxable income for the year, which can bring your tax bill down or bump up the size of your refund.

Speaking of the 2020 tax year, if you haven’t filed your federal return already, the deadline is May 17, 2021 (extended because of the coronavirus pandemic).

Can I File as Head of Household If I Live With My Significant Other?

If you both are unmarried and have children from previous relationships, each of you can file as heads of household as long as you’re adhering to the IRS guidelines (including each of you is paying for more than half of your home costs – e.g., you’re evenly splitting the rent and utilities and each of you pays for your own food).

If you have a child together, only one of you can claim HOH status with that child in mind (the IRS says that a child can be only one person’s dependent.)

In the case where only one of you has a child from a previous relationship, the biological parent can claim HOH status – and the other can claim single status. But if the biological parent doesn’t work outside the home, the earning partner could claim HOH status. In order to claim both the child and non-earning partner as qualifying dependents, the following would have to be true:

  • You provided more than half of their total support for the year.
  • They lived with you legally as members of your household for the entire year.
  • Neither had a gross income that exceeds $4,200.
  • Neither is someone’s qualifying child.

Can I File as Head of Household If There Are No Children?

If there are no children, you can still claim a live-in boyfriend or girlfriend as a qualifying dependent, as long as you meet the following is true:

  • The significant other lived with you legally the whole year.
  • You provided more than half his or her total support for the year.
  • His or her income does not exceed $4,200.
  • He or she is not someone’s qualifying child.

Can I File as Head of Household If I’m Married?

If you are married, it’s likely more beneficial tax-wise to file married jointly. But if you are filing separately, you can claim head of household status if you meet these three criteria:

  • Your spouse did not live with you the last six months of the year.
  • You provided the main home of the qualifying child and paid for more than half the home costs.
  • You are claiming your child as a dependent.

Final Word

What You Need to Know About Filing Head of Household

Filing as head of household will put you in a lower tax bracket than if you filed as single. It also enables you to claim a higher standard tax deduction on your tax return. This is because you are supporting one or more people besides yourself, and the government is lowering your tax burden the same way it does for married couples with children.

Tax Tips

  • Regardless of your tax filing status, a financial advisor can help you make financial decisions that minimize your taxes. To find the right pro for you, try SmartAsset’s free matching tool. It will connect you with up to three financial advisors in your area.
  • SmartAsset can help you figure out what you’ll be getting back from Uncle Sam with our free tax return calculator.

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Rebecca Lake Rebecca Lake is a retirement, investing and estate planning expert who has been writing about personal finance for a decade. Her expertise in the finance niche also extends to home buying, credit cards, banking and small business. She's worked directly with several major financial and insurance brands, including Citibank, Discover and AIG and her writing has appeared online at U.S. News and World Report, and Investopedia. Rebecca is a graduate of the University of South Carolina and she also attended Charleston Southern University as a graduate student. Originally from central Virginia, she now lives on the North Carolina coast along with her two children.
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