The tax breaks accorded to qualifying widows or widowers include being able to use a tax filing status that allows for a higher standard deduction and also receiving beneficial tax treatment in regard to some investments. Qualifying widow status is a special filing status available to surviving spouses for the two years following the year in which their spouse died. The purpose of this special status is to ease any financial burdens incurred resulting from the death of a spouse.

Key Takeaways

  • Qualifying widow status is a special filing status available to surviving spouses for the two years following the year in which their spouse died.
  • This qualifying widow(er) status allows him or her to take the higher standard deduction available with married filing jointly tax rates.
  • Qualifying widows or widowers can also gain special tax breaks on investments they owned jointly with their spouse.

Qualifying Widow(er) Eligibility Requirements

In the year that a spouse dies, a widow or widower may use either the married filing jointly status or filing separately status—not qualifying widow(er)—as long as the widow doesn't marry again in that tax year. If a widow or widower remarries in the same year of a spouse’s death, you’d file your return with your new spouse under the joint or separate status. If remarried and you’re required to file a return for your deceased spouse, their status would be married filing separately because the deceased spouse typically has income that needs to be reported to the IRS. If the decedent is owed refund for individual income tax, the executor may claim it using IRS Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer.

Following a spouse's death, a widow or widower may use the qualifying widow status for two years after the year of your spouse’s death as long as you remain unmarried. For the 2018 tax year, all these descriptions must apply:

  • Spouse died in 2016 or 2017, and you didn’t remarry before the end of 2018.
  • You could have filed as married filing jointly with your spouse for the year your spouse died.
  • You can claim a child, stepchild, or adopted child (but not a foster child) as your dependent and the dependent fulfills other requirements. Learn more about who qualifies as a dependent.
  • You paid more than 50% of the cost of keeping up a home. This must be your child’s main home for the entire year, except for temporary absences.

In addition, these life events may precipitate a change in status to or from the qualifying widow(er) status:

  • After the two-year period, if you remain unmarried, a person can use the single or head of household status if they have qualifying dependents.
  • If the person remarries within the two years, they can file as married filing jointly or married filing separately.

Benefits of a Qualifying Widow Status

The tax benefits for a qualifying widow or widower are significant. During the year a spouse dies, the widow or widower is still eligible to file a tax return using the married filing jointly tax status. For the two years that follow the death of a spouse, the widow or widower is allowed to file using the special filing status of qualifying widow/widower. This filing status allows him or her to take the higher standard deduction available by using the married filing jointly tax rates.

Qualifying widows or widowers can also gain special tax breaks on investments they owned jointly with their spouse. If the widow/widower and spouse owned rental property, it qualifies for a step-up in basis for tax purposes. This can translate into additional depreciation allowances and a lower amount of taxable gains when the property is sold. The step-up in basis also usually applies to other assets, such as stock shares, the widow inherits as the beneficiary of a deceased spouse's estate.