Rules for Single Filing Status on a Tax Return

What You Need to Know About Claiming Single Status on Your Tax Return

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The single filing status for tax returns is your default filing status if you're considered unmarried and you don't qualify for any other filing status.

Your filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which tax rates are used when calculating your federal income tax for the year. Single is just one of five filing status options available. Learn how to choose the right one for your situation.

When You're Considered Unmarried

Your marital status is defined by your status on the last day of the tax year—Dec. 31. You would claim the single filing status on your tax return if you're "considered unmarried" on that date.

This includes:

  • Those who have never married
  • Those who have become legally divorced by Dec. 31
  • Those who are legally separated from a spouse under the terms of a court order by Dec. 31

You are not considered unmarried due to legal separation if you and your spouse only move into separate homes or reach a separation agreement between yourselves. The separation must be made formal by a court order.

When You're Considered Married

Tax brackets and standard deductions for married taxpayers, including same-sex married couples, are different from single filers. These rates are doubled in order to equal the 37% bracket, as there are two people filing taxes in the same return.

Married individuals who file separate returns are subject to the single tax rates and standard deduction, but some tax credits and deductions are unavailable to them when they don't file joint returns.

Common-law spouses in the states that recognize this status are considered married for federal tax purposes. They must choose between married filing jointly and married filing separately tax status.

You can't file a single tax return if you're considered married, even if you and your spouse live in separate households. You might qualify for the head of household status, however. 

Registered Domestic Partners and Civil Unions 

Some partnerships are recognized as such but are not marriages. These include:

  • Registered domestic partnerships
  • Civil unions
  • Other formal relationships that are recognized by the state in which you reside

If you are in one of these relationships you are considered unmarried and must file with the IRS as single if you don't qualify for head of household status. 

Some states require that registered domestic partners and those in civil unions must file state tax returns as if they were married. Domestic partners and those in civil unions who reside in community property states may have to allocate income and deductions between each partner.

At the federal level, people in domestic partnerships or civil unions must file their federal tax returns using either the single or head of household filing status.

Tax Rates for Single Filers 

The table below shows the tax rates in effect for the 2020 tax year for single taxpayers. These are the rates that apply to the tax return you file in 2021.

2020 Tax Rates for Single Filers
Tax Rate Income Over Up to
10% $0 $9,875
12% $9,875  $40,125
22% $40,125 $85,525
24% $85,525 $163,300
32% $163,300 $207,350
35% $207,350 $518,400
37 % $518,400 any higher amount

Income is taxed at these rates to the upper limit and the balance graduates to the next percentage.

For example, if you earn $9,880:

  • The first $9,875 is taxed at 10%
  • The remaining $5 is taxed at 12%

If you earn $80,000:

  • The first $9,875 is taxed at 10%
  • The balance up to $40,125 is taxed at 12%
  • The remaining balance over $40,125 is taxed at 22%

The standard deduction for a single filer is $12,400 in 2020, up from $12,200 in 2019. 

Head of Household Filing Status

You might qualify for head of household filing status if:

  • You are unmarried
  • You can claim a qualifying dependent
  • You pay more than half the expenses of maintaining your household
  • Your dependent has lived in your home more than half the year
  • Your dependent has not paid for more than half their own support during the tax year

If you are in a registered domestic partnership, you cannot claim your partner as a dependent unless you meet strict income and support parameters.

Head of household status provides for a larger standard deduction and wider tax brackets, at least at low and moderate incomes. The standard deduction for head of household taxpayers is $18,650 in 2020, up from $18,350 in 2019. That's $6,250 more than the single standard deduction.

Qualifying Widow or Widower Filing Status

Individuals who are widows or widowers and who can claim a dependent child might qualify for the qualifying widow/widower filing status as well. This is a special filing status for surviving spouses, and the tax rates and standard deduction are the same as for married filing jointly.

This status is limited to the first two years following the death of a spouse as long as the person does not remarry within the tax year.

Which Filing Status Should You Use?

The rules to qualify for each filing status do not leave much room for error, and choosing the wrong status could result in:

  • Paying too much or too little tax
  • Being audited by the IRS

If you are unsure which filing status is correct for you, consult a tax professional.

The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for such advice. State and federal laws change frequently, and the information in this article may not reflect your own state’s laws or the most recent changes to the law. For current tax or legal advice, please consult with an accountant or an attorney.