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

Many unmarried taxpayers are limited to this filing status

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The single filing status for tax returns is more or less a default category. 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...at least not when it comes to the U.S. tax code. 

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 defined as of 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 obviously includes people who have never married, and those who have become legally divorced by the last day of the year. You're considered unmarried for the entire year if your divorce is final on Dec. 31. 

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 you nor your spouse is free to marry anyone else—but you're not considered married for tax purposes.

The key words here are "legally separated." 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.

When You're Considered Married 

Tax brackets and standard deductions for married taxpayers who file joint returns are doubled, at least up to the 37 percent bracket, and this only makes sense—there are two of them. 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 these marriages are considered married for federal tax purposes, as are same-sex married couples

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 

Registered domestic partners are considered unmarried and they 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 have 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 for Single Filers 

The table below shows the tax rates in effect for the 2018 tax year for single taxpayers. These are the rates that apply to the tax return you file in 2019. 

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

2019 Tax Rates and Standard Deduction for Single Filers 

The table below shows the tax rates in effect for the 2019 tax year for single taxpayers. These rates apply to your 2019 income and the tax return you'll file in 2020.

Tax Rate Income Range - Single Filers
10 % $0 to $9,700
12 % $9,701 to $39,475
22 % $39,476 to $84,200
24 % $84,201 to $160,725
32 % $160,726 to $204,100
35 % $204,101 to $510,300
37 % Over $510,300

Income is taxed at these rates to the upper limit and the balance graduates to the next percentage. For example, the first $9,525 is taxed at 10 percent and the remaining $5 is taxed at 12 percent if you earn $9,530 in 2018. 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 $12,200 in 2019, up from $12,000 in 2018. 

Other Filing Status Options 

You might qualify for head of household filing status if you have a qualifying dependent. Head of household status provides for a larger standard deduction and wider tax brackets, at least at low and moderate incomes. These are the brackets for 2018:

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

Brackets increase to the following thresholds in 2019:

Tax Rate Income Range - Head of Household Filers
10 % $0 to $13,850
12 % $13,851 to $52,850
22 % $52,851 to $84,200
24 % $84,201 to $160,700
32 % $160,701 to $204,100
35 % $204,100 to $510,300
37 % Over $510,300

The standard deduction for head of household taxpayers is $18,350 in 2019, up from $18,000 in 2018. That's $6,150 more than the single standard deduction you would be limited to if you had no dependent or otherwise didn't qualify for this 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, but it's limited to the first two years following the death of a husband or wife.

Other Head of Household Qualifying Rules 

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 his own support during the tax year. 

Other Tax Issues for Single Filers

Single taxpayers are separated out from other filers when it comes to other tax issues as well, but individuals are generally divided into two groups: single individuals and married taxpayers who file joint returns. In this case, "single" is a catch-all term for anyone who doesn't file a joint married return.  

For example, the 2019 alternative minimum tax exemption is $1,020,600 for married taxpayers filing joint returns and $510,300 for "single individuals"—which means everyone else.