Qualifying Widow/Widower with Dependent Child Filing Status

Surviving spouses receive many of the same tax benefits as married taxpayers

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Losing a spouse to death is a grievous, life-altering event in so many ways. On top of that, there can be tax ramifications when you change filing statuses. Fortunately, the Internal Revenue Code offers a special filing status to ease some of the financial burden experienced by a grieving family. 

The Qualifying Widow/Widower With Dependent Child Filing Status

A surviving spouse may choose to file either jointly with her deceased spouse or file a separate married return for the tax year in which he died.

Then, in the two subsequent years, the surviving spouse might be able to use the qualifying widow/widower with dependent child filing status if she maintains a household for the couple's dependent children or child. 

The Advantages 

There are two chief benefits in using the qualifying widow/widower status. The standard deduction amount remains the same as that for married couples who file jointly, which can be advantageous, and as of the end of 2017, the tax brackets are exactly the same as for married couples who file jointly as well. This provides widows and widowers who qualify with a two-year period to transition from their status as joint filers to their new status as single, unmarried taxpayers.  

The table below shows the tax rates that apply to qualifying widows and widowers as of 2017.

2017 Ordinary Tax Rates for Qualifying Widow or Widower Filing Status
[Tax Rate Schedule Y-1, Internal Revenue Code section 1(a)]

If taxable income isabcdefg
overbut not overTaxable incomeMinusSubtract (b) from (a)Multiplication amountMultiply (c) by (d)Additional AmountAdd (e) and (f)
$0$18,650 $0 × 10% $0 
18,65075,900 18,650 × 15% 1,865.00 
75,900153,100 75,900 × 25% 10,452.50 
153,100233,350 153,100 × 28% 29,752.50 
233,350416,700 233,350 × 33% 52,222.50 
416,700470,700 416,700 × 35% 112,728.00 
470,700 --  470,700 × 39.6% 131,628.00 

2018 Tax Brackets

Tax brackets for 2018 are somewhat up in the air as of December 2017, thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that Congress is mulling over. Both the House and the Senate have voted on and passed their own versions of the bill and it now remains for them to reach a compromise version that the President can sign into law.

The House version would have a dramatic effect on tax brackets, and the Senate version would affect them as well, although not quite as significantly. Stayed tune, but the above perimeters remain in effect in the meantime. 

Criteria for Widow/Widower with Dependent Child Status

Four criteria exist for being able to claim this filing status:

  1. The taxpayer was eligible to file a joint return with his or her spouse for the year during which the spouse died, regardless of whether a joint return was actually filed.
  2. The taxpayer's spouse died during either of the two immediately preceding tax years.
  3. The taxpayer has not remarried during the current tax year. 
  4. The taxpayer maintains a home for at least one dependent child who is a son, daughter, stepson or stepdaughter by blood or through adoption. This dependent must reside with the taxpayer for the entire tax year except for temporary absences such as living away at school for a period of time during the year.

How the Two-Year Rule Works

Suppose a spouse passes away in 2017. The surviving spouse can file a joint return with her deceased spouse for the year of his death, which would be 2017. The surviving spouse can then file using the qualifying widow/widower status for tax years 2018 and 2019 if she qualifies.

The taxpayer would have to choose another filing status, such as single or head of household depending on her circumstances, for tax year 2020 and going forward. 

Types of Dependents 

The surviving spouse must be eligible to claim his or her son, daughter, stepson, or stepdaughter as a dependent in each of these qualifying years. This is true whether the child is related by blood or adoption. Foster children are not included in the definition, nor are any other types of dependents, but that doesn't mean the surviving spouse can't claim them as dependents for other tax purposes. This rule for dependents only pertains to the qualifying widow/widower filing status.

Maintaining a Home for a Dependent Child

The taxpayer must also maintain a home for her son, daughter, stepson, or stepdaughter. Maintaining a home means that the taxpayer furnished more than half the cost of keeping up the home during the tax year.

Costs of keeping up a home include rent or mortgage payments, property taxes, utilities, and groceries.

The child must reside in the same household as the taxpayer for the entire year except for "temporary absences," which include illness, education, business, vacation, or military service. These events won't disqualify the taxpayer for qualifying widow/widower status as long as it's "reasonable to assume the absent person will return to the home after the temporary absence. You must continue to keep up the home during the absence," according to IRS Publication 501.