Choosing your filing status is an important first step for preparing your federal tax return. Your filing status determines your standard deduction, tax rates and brackets.
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The initial step in preparing your federal income tax return is to determine your eligibility for the various filing statuses. Generally, you can choose between:
- head of household,
- married filing jointly and separately or
- as a qualified widower.
Your filing status is very important because it determines the amount of your standard deduction and the tax rates and brackets your income is subject to. You can change your tax filing status each year as long as you satisfy its specific eligibility requirements.
Step 1—Evaluate the requirements of each tax filing status
The first thing you need to do is determine which tax filing status you are eligible for. The instructions to your federal income tax return lists the requirements for each status, but if you use tax software, such as TurboTax, the program will determine the best status for you based on answers you provide to questions.
Step 2—Qualify for head of household?
If you are unmarried, see if you qualify as head of household. Filing as head of household rather than single allows you to claim a much larger standard deduction. However, this tax filing status requires that you pay more than half the costs to maintain your home and to have a dependent who lives with you for more than half the tax year.
Married taxpayers are generally ineligible to claim this filing status. If you are married, you must determine whether to file jointly or separately. Unless you have extenuating circumstances, you should file a joint return with your spouse to take advantage of the larger standard deduction and lower tax rates.
Step 3—Evaluate eligibility
Evaluate whether you are eligible for a different filing status in one of the last three years. If you discover that you qualify for a different filing status than you ordinarily claim on your returns, you should evaluate the filing status requirements for each of the last three years to see if you can amend your tax return for a better tax outcome.
Generally, the requirements are similar each year for the same filing status, but you should always check the instructions that apply for the specific tax year you are taking another look at. When you use TurboTax, you can easily access forms and instructions from the prior year.
Step 4—Amending your tax returns
The IRS allows you to change your filing status for a tax return you’ve already filed if no more than three years have passed since the original tax filing deadline. For example, if you filed as a single taxpayer last year, but now realize you qualified for head of household, you need to make the change on an IRS Form 1040-X.
When you change this status, you not only obtain a larger standard deduction, but your income for that year is subject to lower tax rates. Making this change will likely result in a tax refund, but you cannot receive it until you file the amended return.
You can amend a return to change from married filing separate to married filing joint but not from married filing joint to married filing separate unless you do so prior to the original filing deadline without extensions. So, once you file a joint return you can not change it to a separate return if the filing deadline has already passed.
When assessing whether you are eligible to amend a tax return to change your filing status, the three-year period begins on the tax filing deadline for the year of the return even if you file before this date. However, if you filed after the tax filing deadline for that year, the period begins on the date you actually file.
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