Learn About Claiming Single Status on Your Tax Return

Many unmarried taxpayers are limited to this filing status

Man looking out of his apartment at sunrise.
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The single filing status for tax returns is more or less a default category. According to the IRS, it's your filing status if you're considered unmarried and you don't qualify for any other filing status.

But that explanation leaves some gray areas. What does "considered" unmarried mean? You're either married or you're not, right? Not exactly. 

Your filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which tax rates are used when calculating your federal income tax for the year so it pays to quantify these gray areas and get it right.

Single is just one of five filing status options available to you and at least one other is much more advantageous. 

When You're "Considered" Unmarried 

Your marital status is marked as of the last day of the tax year. You would claim the single filing status on your tax return if you're "considered unmarried" on that day and if you don't qualify for any other filing status. 

This obviously includes people who have never married, and it includes those who have become legally divorced by the last day of the year. If your divorce is final on Dec. 30, you're considered unmarried for the entire year. 

You're also considered unmarried if you're legally separated from your spouse under the terms of a court order by the last day of the year. Yes, you're still technically married—neither of you is free to marry anyone else—but not for tax purposes.

The key word is "legally." You and your spouse cannot simply move into separate households or reach a separation agreement between yourselves unless that separation agreement is made into a court order.

Common law spouses in the states that recognize these marriages are considered married for federal tax purposes. 

Registered Domestic Partners and Civil Unions 

Registered domestic partners are considered unmarried and must file as single if they don't qualify for head of household status. 

The IRS states in Revenue Ruling 2013-17: "For federal tax purposes, the terms 'spouse,' 'husband and wife,' 'husband,' and 'wife' do not include individuals (whether of the opposite sex or the same sex) who have entered into a registered domestic partnership, civil union, or other similar formal relationship recognized under state law that is not denominated as a marriage under the laws of that state."  

Some states require that registered domestic partners and persons in civil unions must file state tax returns as if they were married. Domestic partners and persons in civil unions who reside in some of the community property states may need to allocate income and deductions between each partner. This applies to domestic partners in the states of Washington, Nevada, and California.

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

2018 Tax Rates and Standard Deduction for Single Filers 

The table below shows the tax rates in effect for the 2018 tax year for single taxpayers. 

 Tax Rate Income Range - Single Filers 
 10 % $0 to $9,525
 12 % $9,526 to $38,700
 22 % $38,701 to $82,500
 24 % $82,501 to $157,500
 32 % $157,501 to $200,000
 35 % $200,001 to $500,000
 37 % Over $500,000

Income is taxed at these to the upper limit and the balance graduates to the next percentage. For example, if you earn $9,530 in 2018, the first $9,525 is taxed at 10 percent and the remaining $5 is taxed at 12 percent. Likewise, if you earn $80,000, the first $9,530 is taxed at 10 percent, the balance up to $38,700 is taxed at 12 percent, and only the remaining balance over $38,700 is taxed at 22 percent.

The standard deduction for a single filer is $12,000 in 2018, up from $6,350 in 2017. 

Other Filing Status Options 

If you're eligible to claim a dependent, you might qualify for head of household filing status. Head of household status provides for a larger standard deduction and wider tax brackets, at least at low and moderate incomes.

 Tax Rate Income Range - Head of Household Filers 
 10 % $0 to $13,600
 12 % $13,601 to $51,800
 22 % $51,801 to $82,500
 24 % $82,501 to $157,500
 32 % $157,501 to $200,000
 35 % $200,001 to $500,000
 37 % Over $500,000

The standard deduction for head of household taxpayers is $18,000 in 2018, $6,000 more than the single standard deduction you would be limited to if you had no dependent or otherwise did not qualify. 

In addition to being unmarried and being able to claim a qualifying dependent, head of household filers must pay more than half the expenses of maintaining their households.

In most cases, your dependent must have lived in your home for more than half the year, but an exception exists for your parents and some other close relatives. Your dependent cannot have paid for more than half of his own support during the tax year. 

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 for the first two years following the death of their husband or wife.