Head of Household is one of five filing status options. You can claim the Head of Household filing status on your tax return if you pass the support test, the residency test for a qualifying person, and are unmarried at the end of the year. There are also special rules that relate to separated parents and married couples who live apart from each other.
Taxpayers who qualify for the Head of Household filing status benefit from a higher standard deduction and wider tax brackets compared to the single filing status. The criteria for head of household status are very specific. Tools and resources concerning head of household and filing status are provided at the end of this article.
What Is Head of Household?
Filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which tax rates are used when calculating a person’s federal income tax for the year. The table below shows the tax rates that apply to head of household filers for the year 2017.
2017 Ordinary Tax Rates for Head of Household Filing Status
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Who Qualifies for the Head of Household Filing Status?
A person can claim the Head of Household filing status on their tax return if the person passes three tests:
- Unmarried Test,
- Support Test, and
- Qualifying Person Test.
A person qualifies for the head of household filing status if the person is unmarried or considered unmarried at the end of the year, and paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home for the year, and has one or more qualifying persons who reside with the taxpayer for more than half the year.
To qualify for head of household status, a person must be unmarried or considered as if they were unmarried for the year.
Normally, a taxpayer must be unmarried on the last day of the year in order to file as head of household. Unmarried means a person is not married because he or she is single, divorced, or legally separated under a separate maintenance decree. As general rule, state law determines whether a person is married or not married.
In the case of same-sex married couples, their marriages are recognized for federal tax purposes based on the state or country where the marriage was celebrated. The laws of the state where the same-sex married couple resides determines whether the couple is considered married or not married for the purpose of filing their state income tax return.
Married Persons may be Considered Unmarried for Tax Filing Purposes
A married person may be considered as if he or she were unmarried for the purpose of qualifying for head of household status. To be considered unmarried, the person needs to be legally married and have lived in a separate residence from his or her spouse for at least the last six months of the year (July through December).
Furthermore, the taxpayer would need to file a tax return separate from his or her spouse, and needs to meet the other two criteria for head of household relating to the Support Test and the Qualifying Person Test.
In other words, the married person would need to (1) reside someplace separate from the other spouse for at least the last six months of the year, and (2) pay for more than half the cost of maintaining their home, and (3) have one or more qualifying persons living with them at their separate home for more than half the year. The advantages of being able to file as head of household for married persons are discussed further in the article.
To qualify for head of household status, the taxpayer needs to pass a “Support Test.” The support test means that the taxpayer provides more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year.
The cost of keeping up a home includes such expenses as rent, mortgage payments, property taxes, property insurance, repairs, utilities, and groceries. Taxpayers can use Worksheet 1 in Publication 501 to determine if they meet the support test. Costs not included in the support test are clothing, education, medical care, vacations, life insurance and transportation.
Money received from public assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families does not count as financial support provided by the taxpayer. In Publication 17, the IRS advises: “If you used payments you received under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or other public assistance programs to pay part of the cost of keeping up your home, you cannot count them as money you paid. However, you must include them in the total cost of keeping up your home to figure if you paid over half the cost.”
Qualifying Person Test
To qualify for the head of household filing status, a qualifying person needs to live in the taxpayer’s home for more than half the year. Only certain types of closely-related relatives can be qualifying persons for the head of household filing status. A qualifying person is:
- Child, step child, adopted child, foster child, brother or sister, or a descendant of one of these whom you claim as a dependent under the qualifying childrenrules;
- Child, step child, adopted child, foster child, brother or sister, or a descendant of one of these whom you would be eligible to claim as a dependent under the qualifying children rules but choose not to claim as a dependent because you released the dependent’s exemption to the noncustodial parent;
- Mother or father who can be claimed as a dependent under the qualifying relative rules; or
- Brother, sister, grandparent, niece, or nephew whom you can claim as a dependent under the qualifying relative rules.
Refer to Table 4 in Publication 501 for a well-laid out chart regarding qualifying persons.
Note that under the qualifying relative rules, some dependents do not need to live with the taxpayer. However, for head of household purposes the dependent must reside with the taxpayer for more than half the year.
Two Exceptions on the Requirement that a Qualifying Person Must Reside with the Taxpayer for More than Half a Year
Exception for Temporary Absences
During a period of temporary absence, on the part of either the taxpayer or dependent, due to “illness, education, business, vacation, or military service,” the taxpayer and the qualifying person are still considered to be residing in the same household. To count as a temporary absence, “It must be 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” (Publication 501).
Exception for Dependent Parents
There is a special exception for people who support their dependent parents. A parent can be a qualifying person for the purpose of qualifying for head of household status even if the parent does not reside at the same home as the taxpayer. However, the taxpayer still needs to be able to claim the parent as a dependent and would still need to meet the support test. “If your qualifying person is your father or mother, you may be eligible to file as head of household even if your father or mother does not live with you. However, you must be able to claim an exemption for your father or mother. Also, you must pay more than half the cost of keeping up a home that was the main home for the entire year for your father or mother. You are keeping up a main home for your father or mother if you pay more than half the cost of keeping your parent in a rest home or home for the elderly” (Publication 501).
Tools for Determining Filing Status
The IRS has a filing status application on their Web site called What is My Filing Status? This Web application takes about five minutes to complete and helps you determine which filing status you qualify for.
The IRS also has a Determination of Filing Status Decision Tree on page B-1 of Publication 4012 (pdf).
- Internal Revenue Code section 2(b), which defines head of household; see also the related Treasury Regulations section 1.2-2
- Internal Revenue Code section 7703, which defines marital status for tax purposes; see also the related Treasury Regulations section 1.7703-1
- Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- Publication 504, Divorced or Separated Individuals
- Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax
- J.K. Lasser’s Your Income Tax, chapter 1.12.