Determine your tax filing status as a qualifying surviving spouse

Don’t let choosing the wrong status make a difficult time even more stressful.

Article published: March 22, 2024

By: Valerie Harman Director, Tax Advisory and Planning, CPA, CFP®

The death of a loved one can be a time of great grief and emotional pain, which is only exacerbated when there are complex and, oftentimes, looming financial obligations left for the surviving spouse to deal with.

One of those unavoidable obligations is filing income taxes. As a widow or widower, your filing requirements, tax rate, standard deductions and eligibility for certain tax breaks are determined by the filing status you choose, so it’s crucial to select the status that helps ensure your tax bill is as low as possible.

Thankfully, the IRS has some accommodations in place that can help lessen the financial burden, but only if you know which filing status to select.

Options for qualifying surviving spouse filing status

Let’s take a look at some of the different options you can use, depending on your eligibility, for your income tax filing status after the death of a spouse.

Married filing jointly

If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the whole year for IRS filing status purposes. Even though your spouse has passed away, the IRS still allows you to select the married filing jointly option, but only for the taxable year in which they died. The exception would be if you remarried the same year in which your spouse passed, which we’ll cover in a moment.

 

The advantage of the married filing jointly filing status is that you will get a higher standard deduction than the single or married filing separately status allows. For tax year 2024, that means a standard deduction of $29,200 as opposed to only $14,600.1

 

This option also allows for higher income thresholds in each tax bracket. For example, for 2024, the 24% tax bracket for single or married filing separately starts at $100,525 and is capped at $191,950, after which you jump to the 32% tax bracket. However, for married filing jointly, the 24% bracket starts at $201,050 and goes as high as $383,900 before jumping to the 32% bracket.1

 

This means your taxable income can be twice as high while staying in the 24% tax bracket when you file jointly, which can result in significant tax savings.

Qualified surviving spouse filing status

The filing status of qualifying surviving spouse2 can be used by a widow or widower for the first two tax years after the year in which your spouse passes – but not for the actual tax year in which they passed – as long as you meet all of the following requirements:

 

  • You were entitled to file a joint return for the tax year in which your spouse died, even if you didn’t actually file a return
  • You don’t remarry before the end of the tax year for which you are filing
  • You have at least one dependent child. This can be a stepchild or an adopted child, though a foster child does not qualify. The dependent child qualifies if he/she can be claimed as a dependent on your tax return, or could have been claimed on your tax return, except that:

- The child had gross income of $5,050 or more during 2024

- The child filed a joint return with their spouse, or

- You could be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return

 

  • Your qualified dependent child lives in your home as their main residence all year, except for temporary absences
  • You paid more than half of the costs to maintain your home

 

The advantage of using the qualifying surviving spouse filing status is that the standard deductions and tax brackets are the same as for married filing jointly, and thus, more likely to lower your tax liability than using either the single or head of household options.

What if you remarry?

If you get remarried in the same year as your spouse passes, you won’t be able to use the married filing jointly status with your deceased spouse. However, you will be able to use the married filing jointly status with your new spouse. And if a tax return is still required for your deceased spouse, it can be filed on their behalf using the married filing separately filing status for your deceased spouse.

Single filing status

If you don’t remarry and can’t meet the requirement to file as a qualifying surviving spouse, you’ll usually have to file your taxes using the single status beginning with the year after the year in which your spouse passes. The exception to this would be if you have a qualifying child or qualifying relative dependent, in which case you would likely file as head of household.

Head of household filing status

The head of household is another filing status some widows or widowers may consider, particularly if they don’t qualify for the qualifying surviving spouse filing status. To qualify for head of household status, you must:

 

  • Be unmarried or “considered unmarried” on the final day of the tax year
  • Have paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home for the year
  • Have a qualifying child living in the home for more than half the year – barring temporary absences like for school – or have a qualifying relative who lived with you for more than half the year who you can claim as a dependent

A qualifying relative may be any of the following who are not a dependent of any other taxpayer and who you could claim as a dependent on your tax return:

 

  • Your son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, grandchild, brother, sister, half brother, half sister, niece, nephew, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, aunt, uncle, stepbrother, stepsister, stepfather, stepmother, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law
  • To qualify as a dependent, the qualifying relative’s gross income – not including nontaxable income – must be less than $4,700 during 2023 ($5,050 for 2024) and you must have provided more than one half of their support

A special rule applies to a parent dependent: Your parent doesn't necessarily need to live with you for you to file as a head of household; they just need to qualify as your dependent. To qualify for tax year 2023, the parent must have less than $4,700 in gross income ($5,050 for 2024). Nontaxable Social Security and other tax-free income doesn’t apply here, but interest, dividends, pensions and other taxable income does – and you must provide more than half of their support and pay more than half the cost of their main home for the entire year.

 

For the 2024 taxable year, a head of household status benefits from a higher standard deduction of $21,900,1 which could offer some financial relief for single parents or those supporting dependent relatives.

 

The death of a spouse can be a devastating event, and although there is no way to lessen the emotional impact, having a comprehensive financial plan in place before tragedy strikes can help to lessen the financial impact. If you’ve experienced the loss of a spouse and have questions about your options, or just want to review your financial plan to make sure it’s up to date, contact an Edelman Financial Engines advisor today. We’re here to help.

 

 

1 Internal Revenue Service. (2023, November 9). IRS provides tax inflation adjustments for tax year 2024. Retrieved January 10, 2024, from https://www.irs.gov/newsroom/irs-provides-tax-inflation-adjustments-for-tax-year-2024

2 Internal Revenue Service. (2024, January 2). Publication 501: Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information. Retrieved February 1, 2024, from https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p501.pdf

Neither Edelman Financial Engines nor its affiliates offer tax or legal advice. Interested parties are strongly encouraged to seek advice from your qualified tax and/or legal professionals to help determine the best options for your particular circumstances.


Valerie Harman

Director, Tax Advisory and Planning, CPA, CFP®

Being versed in both tax compliance and financial planning is an advantageous intersection from which to assist clients with planning for their financial goals. Since 2011, I have served in tax compliance, with an emphasis on financial planning since 2014. Additionally, I am experienced in assisting privately held businesses with accounting and managerial finance.


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