Demystifying Head of Household Status

January 29, 2014 : Lynn Ebel

Ed note: There have been a lot of questions recently asking about who qualifies as head of household. Determining HOH can be a tricky thing, so we asked Lynn Ebel from The Tax Institute to provide some guidance.

You know you are the heart of your household, but would the IRS consider you the head of household?  Which filing status you use determines the amount of your standard deduction and what tax rates are used to calculate your federal income tax. The head of household (HOH) filing status is more generous on both accounts than the Single filing status.

To file as HOH, there are certain rules you must meet:

1. You must be unmarried or “considered unmarried” on the last day of the tax year.

Marital status is always determined the last day of the year. Therefore if you were not married at all during the year or have a permanent court order of legal separation, divorce, or separate maintenance at midnight on December 31, you are unmarried and meet this requirement.

Individuals in a same sex marriage are considered married for federal tax purposes and these couples can no longer file an original federal return as Single or HOH unless they are considered unmarried. A married taxpayer needs to meet the “considered unmarried” rules to file HOH.

To be “considered unmarried” for tax purposes in order to file as HOH you must meet all of the following requirements:

  • You must file a separate return from your spouse.
  • You must have provided more than half the cost of maintaining your home for the tax year.
  • The home must have been the principal place of abode for you and your dependent son, daughter, or eligible foster child (that meets the qualifying child or qualifying relative tests to be claimed as your dependent) for more than half the tax year. But don’t worry, this will include a child who would be your dependent except that the exemption was released to the noncustodial parent.
  • Your spouse must not have lived in the home at any time during the last six months of the tax year. This does not include those situations in which the spouse is living away from the home temporarily (job assignment, military deployment, temporary incarceration).

2. You must have paid more than half of the cost of maintaining the household for the year.

In order to file as head of household, you must have paid more than half the cost of maintaining a household for the year. This could be different than the support tests you use to figure if you can claim a dependent. The costs included when making this determination:

  • Rent.
  • Mortgage interest.
  • Real estate taxes.
  • Insurance on the home.
  • Property taxes.
  • Repairs.
  • Utilities.
  • Food eaten in the home.

Do not include the costs of the following items:

  • Clothing.
  • Education.
  • Medical treatment or medical insurance premiums.
  • Vacations.
  • Life insurance.
  • Food consumed outside of the home (for example, in restaurants).
  • Mortgage principal.
  • Transportation.
  • Rental value of a home owned by the taxpayer.
  • Services provided by the taxpayer or other members of the household.

If the total amount paid by the taxpayer is more than the amount others paid, including amounts paid from government assistance programs or child support, then the taxpayer meets the requirement of paying more than half the cost of maintaining the household for the year

One question that gets asked often is “Can there be more than one HOH at an address?” And the answer is “Possibly.” There can only be one HOH per household since this requirement is that you paid 51% of the total household expenses. But there could potentially be more than one household per home. If there is more than one household and each taxpayer paid more than 50% of their respective households, it is possible to have more than one taxpayer meet the HOH filing status even if they live at the same place.

Consider a taxpayer who moves in with a friend and each have children. The taxpayer and friend have their own bedrooms and bathrooms, don’t share groceries, don’t take vacations together, and each pays rent and utilities. Here, it also seems that there are two separate households, and both the taxpayer and friend can file using the HOH filing status if each otherwise qualifies. But each would need to prove all the HOH requirements are met.

3. You must have maintained a household for either of the following:

A qualifying child or qualifying relative who lived with you for more than half the year and you can claim as a dependent. These relationships include:Your child, stepchild, adopted child, eligible foster child, or a descendant of any of these:

  • Your brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, or a son or daughter of any of these,
  • Your step-father or step-mother, stepbrother, stepsister,
  • A brother or sister of your father or mother
  • Your grandparent (but not a foster parent)
  • Your son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, or sister-in-law.

Or your mother or father for the entire year and who you may claim as a dependent, regardless of whether they live in your same home.

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Lynn Ebel

Lynn Ebel

The Tax Institute, H&R Block

Lynn Ebel, JD, LLM, is manager of The Tax Institute's research department. Lynn specializes in real estate tax issues, including property transfers, passive activity losses, and bankruptcy issues.