Filing Taxes as Qualifying Widow or Widower With a Dependent Child

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

A mother and daughter sitting on a park bench in fall
••• Tooga/Getty Images

Losing a spouse to death is a life-altering event in so many ways, and it comes with tax ramifications, too. The Internal Revenue Code offers a special filing status to ease some of the financial burden experienced by a grieving family, that of qualifying widow or widower. 

A surviving spouse can file jointly with his deceased spouse for the tax year in which his spouse died, or he can file a separate married return for that year.

Then he might be able to use the qualifying widow(er) with dependent child status for the next two years if he maintains a household for the couple's dependent children or child. 

The Advantages of Qualifying Widow(er) Status 

The qualifying widow(er) status offers two main benefits. The standard deduction amount remains the same as that for married couples who file jointly, which can be helpful. And as of 2018, 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.  

This table shows the tax rates that apply to qualifying widows and widowers in 2018.

Taxable income over But not over The tax is...
 $0 $19,050 10% of the amount over $0
 $19,050 $77,400 $1,905 + 12% of the amount over $19,050
 $77,400 $165,000 $8,907 + 22% of the amount over $77,400
 $165,000 $315,000 $28,179 + 24% of the amount over $165,000
 $315,000 $400,000 $64,179 + 32% of the amount over $315,000
 $400,000 $600,000 $91,379 + 35% of the amount over $400,000
 $600,000  $161,379 + 37% of the amount over $600,000

Criteria for Widow(er) 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 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.
  1. The taxpayer has not remarried during the current tax year. 
  2. 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.

How the Two-Year Rule Works

The surviving spouse can file a joint return with her deceased spouse for 2017 if he died in 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 for tax year 2020 and going forward, such as single or head of household, depending on her circumstances.

Rules for Dependents 

The surviving spouse must be eligible to claim his 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(er) 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 residence 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 with 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(er) 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.