Can You Claim Head of Household Filing Status?

Filing as head of household depends on three complicated criteria

An illustrated chart details the Head of Household tax brackets for the 2020 tax year.
Image by Colleen Tighe. © The Balance 2020

Your tax filing status depends on your life circumstances, the most important being whether you're married. Other factors include whether you have dependents, and if you used to be married but your spouse is now deceased.

The Internal Revenue Code offers five different filing status options, and you must choose one of them when you complete your tax return. The head of household status is considered to be the most advantageous because taxpayers who qualify get a higher standard deduction and wider tax brackets compared to the single filing status. Numerous rules apply to qualifying, however. 

How Do You Claim Head of Household Filing Status?

Qualifying for head of household status means meeting a series of interlocking rules involving your marital status, paying for more than half your household’s expenses, and having a dependent.

The Unmarried Test

Normally, a taxpayer must be unmarried on the last day of the tax year to file as head of household. This means you're single, divorced, or legally separated under a separate maintenance decree issued by a state court. But you can be "considered” unmarried if you're still legally married but you lived in a separate residence from your spouse for at least the last six months of the year—literally from no later than July 1 through the end of December.

You must file a separate tax return from your spouse, and you must still meet the other two criteria for head of household status if you qualify under the “considered” unmarried rule: the support test and the qualifying dependent test.

The Support Test 

The support test requires that you provide more than half the cost of keeping up your home for the entire year. Qualifying costs include expenses like rent or mortgage interest payments—although not the principal portion of your mortgage payments because that’s paying back your loan. They include property taxes, property insurance, repairs, utilities, and groceries. 

Taxpayers can use Worksheet 1 in Publication 501 to determine if they meet the support test.

Unfortunately, costs associated with clothing, education, medical care, vacations, life insurance, and transportation don't count toward this test.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be the only adult living in your household. You can still have a roommate to help defray costs, but you must personally pay at least 51% of the household expenses. You won’t qualify as head of household if you scissor expenses exactly down the middle.

Income received from public assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families doesn't count toward financial support provided by a taxpayer for purposes of qualifying for head of household filing status. If you used funds from any of these sources, you can't include it as money you personally paid toward supporting your household.

The Qualifying Dependent Test

A qualifying dependent must live in your home for more than half the year, and this is the most complicated rule of all. Only certain closely-related relatives can be qualifying persons for purposes of meeting the head of household filing status rules. They include: 

  • Your child, stepchild, adopted child, foster child, brother, sister, or a descendant of one of these individuals whom you claim as a dependent under the qualifying children rules
  • Your child, stepchild, adopted child, foster child, brother, sister, or a descendant of one of these individuals whom you could claim as a dependent under the qualifying children rules, but you've elected not to claim them as a dependent because you released the right to claim the child as a dependent to the noncustodial parent
  • Your mother or father who can be claimed as your dependent under the qualifying relative rules
  • Your brother, sister, grandparent, niece, or nephew whom you can claim as a dependent under the qualifying relative rules

The IRS provides a well laid-out chart regarding qualifying persons in Table 4 of Publication 501.

Tools for Determining Filing Status

The IRS has an interactive filing status tool on its website. It takes about five minutes to complete and it can help you determine if you qualify for head of household status. Most tax preparation software will ask you a series of questions to help you determine your filing status for you as well.

The Head of Household Standard Deduction

Your filing status determines the amount of your standard deduction, as well as the tax rates you'll pay on your income. The head of household standard deduction for 2020 is $18,650, up from $18,350 in 2019.

Contrast this with single filers and married individuals who file separate returns—they can claim only a $12,400 standard deduction in 2020. Married taxpayers who file joint returns get a $24,800 deduction, but this works out to one $12,400 deduction for each of them, just as though they were single.

Head of Household Tax Rates

This table shows the tax rates that apply to head of household filers for tax year 2019, the tax return you'll file in 2020. Each segment of your income is taxed at the applicable bracket or percentage rate.

Head of Household Tax Brackets for 2020
Rate Income
10% $0–$14,100
12% $14,100$53,700
22% $53,701–$85,500
24% $85,501–$163,300
32% $163,301–$207,350
35% $207,351–$518,400
37% $518,401 or more

Head of household filers also get a break on the long-term capital gains tax rate. They don't jump to the 15% rate in the 2019 tax year until their taxable incomes exceed $52,750. It's just $39,375 for other unmarried taxpayers, and $78,750—again, double the amount for other single filers—for married taxpayers filing jointly.

Exceptions to the Rules

A taxpayer and their qualifying dependent are considered to reside in the same household during periods of temporary absences if the absence is due to "illness, education, business, vacation, or military service," according to the IRS. In other words, if your child lives away at school for a portion of the year, they’ll still qualify you.

There's also a special exception for people who support their dependent parents. A parent can be a qualifying person for purposes of meeting the residency test even if they don’t reside in your home, as long as you can claim them as your dependent and you meet the support test. You must pay more than half the cost of maintaining their home for the year.

You'd also meet the qualifying dependent test if you paid more than half the cost of keeping your parent in a home for the elderly or a rest home.

Can Two Spouses Both Qualify? An Example

It's possible that two taxpayers who used to be married to each other could each qualify as head of household due to the complexity of these rules—assuming they're divorced as of December 31 of the tax year, or they haven't lived together from July 1 onward.

For example, Mary might maintain her own residence, and the child she and John share lives with her throughout most of the year. She claims the child as her dependent. She has a roommate to help her make ends meet, but the roommate only contributes about a quarter of the household's annual expenses. Mary pays the other 75%.

Mary qualifies as head of household. She meets both the qualifying dependent test and the support test. She and John are "considered unmarried" under IRS rules because she and John broke up and moved into separate residences on June 1, and they never lived together after that point.

As for John, he lives alone. He pays 100% of his household expenses, and he also paid half the annual cost for his mother to live in a nursing home. John also qualifies as head of household. He's considered unmarried and he meets both the support test and the qualifying dependent test because he provides for his mother.