What Filing Status Do I Use for my Taxes?

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid


Your filing status can influence the amount of the standard deduction, the amount of tax, and the amount of or eligibility for certain credits. Getting it right is important.

If you are legally married, you have three possible filing statuses to choose from:

Married Filing Jointly

  • Both spouses
    • Are listed on the return
    • Report all income and deductible expenses
    • Are responsible for the accuracy of information
    • Are responsible for any tax due on the return or additional tax the IRS decides is due
    • Must sign the return
  • If your spouse passes away, you can use this filing status for the tax year in which your spouse dies.
  • NOTE: You can choose not to file jointly. An exception may apply if a court order tells you to file jointly.

Married Filing Separately

(Income that is required to be included on separate returns in community property states may be different.)

  • Each spouse is responsible for:
    • Filing a return if you meet a filing threshold
    • Reporting your income and expenses
    • Paying the tax due on your own return
    • Supplying the other spouse’s social security number, if known.
  • If you choose this status and itemize deductions on your return, your spouse must also.
  • Neither you nor your spouse can claim the Earned Income Credit (EIC), child dependent care credit, or education credits.

Head of household

  • If you lived separately from your spouse for the last half of the year
  • You paid more than one half of the cost for maintaining a household for a qualifying child.
  • NOTE: If you are a married taxpayer living with a spouse who is considered a “non-resident” alien for tax purposes you may be able to use this status. In this situation, the taxpayer is still not eligible for the EIC.

Unmarried taxpayers have three choices:

  • Single
  • Head of Household
  • Qualifying Widower
    • If you remain unmarried and maintain the household for a qualifying child
    • This status provides a higher deduction
    • This status can be used for the two years following the death of your spouse

Some tax preparers encourage married couples living together to file as single or head of household to increase the refund.

  • This is against the law. What can happen to you?
    • Your return may be audited by the Internal Revenue Service
    • You will have to pay penalties, interest, credits, and additional tax
    • You won’t be able to claim certain credits in future years.

It is very important to go to a reliable preparer and claim only your correct refund.

This article is not a substitute for legal advice about your individual situation.

Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:call 800-532-1275. 
Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161 or 
apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice
Last Review and Update: May 08, 2023
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