What Is a Qualified Widow or Widower?

A qualified widow or widower is a tax filing status that allows a surviving spouse to use the married filing jointly tax rates on an individual return for up to two years following the death of the spouse. This allows the surviving spouse to receive the highest standard deduction for their taxes, providing they do not itemize deductions.

Typically, in order to use the qualified widow(er) status, a spouse must remain unmarried for at least two years following the year of the spouse’s death, as well as meet other standards.

  • Qualified widow or widower is a tax filing status that allows a surviving spouse to use the married filing jointly tax rates on their tax return.
  • To be eligible for qualified widow(er) status, the survivor must remain unmarried for at least two years following the year of the spouse’s death.
  • The surviving spouse must also have at least one dependent child, and have handled at least half of the household costs.
  • The qualifying widow(er) status offers two important benefits: The standard deduction amount and the tax bracket ranges are the same as those for married couples who file jointly.
  • After the third year, the surviving spouse can no longer be a qualified widow(er), but must file as single or head of household.

Understanding Qualified Widow or Widower

The qualified widow or widower status is provided as a measure of financial relief for those who have lost their spouse and may be struggling with death-related expenses or other regular household bills. A tax filing status as a qualified widow or widower allows the surviving spouse to file taxes as if they were still married, despite the fact that their partner is deceased.

You can file taxes as a qualified widow(er) for the year your spouse died, as well as two years following their death. (So, depending on the timing of when the spouse passed during the year, this time frame could technically be three years calendar years.) After that, though, you must opt for the status of either single filer or head of household.

Qualifying Widow(er) is one of the IRS's five official filing statuses. Still, because it is a somewhat unusual one, it does carry some specific rules and regulations about who can use it.

Eligibility Rules

You are eligible to file as a qualifying widow(er) if you meet all the following qualifications.

1. You were entitled to file a joint return with your spouse for the year your spouse died. It doesn't matter whether you actually filed a joint return.

2. Your spouse died in the previous two years, and you didn't remarry before the end of the ensuing tax year. For example, if your spouse died in 2018 or 2019 and you remained unmarried as of Dec. 31, 2020, you could file as a qualifying widow(er) for the tax year 2020.

3. You have at least one child or stepchild (not a foster child) living with you, whom you can claim as a dependent. (You don't actually have to do so on your tax return, but they must technically qualify as one.)

4. You paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year. Expenses for home upkeep including everything from groceries to rent or mortgage, homeowners insurance to property taxes, repairs, utilities, and other home maintenance fees.

Taxpayers who do not remarry in the year their spouse dies can file jointly with the deceased spouse for that tax year. After that, they can opt for Qualifying Widow(er) status.

Special Considerations

Having a dependent child is a key part of Qualified Widow or Widower status—it's so crucial to the tax filing status, in fact, that there is often an addendum to the title that stipulates it ("Qualified Widow(er) with Dependent Child"). The law also dictates that the dependent child must have lived in the home with the taxpayer all year, aside from temporary absences, like vacations or visiting relatives. There are exceptions if a child's presence is for less than a year, for things like birth, death, and even kidnapping.

In addition, the child cannot count if:

  • It had a gross income of $4,300 or more
  • It filed a joint return
  • You could be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return

Advantages of Qualified Widow or Widower

The big reason for filing in this way: tax savings. You get all the advantages of being married and filing jointly. Chief among these are deductions and income tax brackets.

The standard deduction ($24,800 for the tax year 2020; $25,100 for the 2021 tax year) and the tax brackets are the same for Qualifying Widow(er) and Married Filing Jointly filing statuses. And both are more favorable than those for the Head of Household, and of course, the Single filing status.