What Is a Qualifying Widow/Widower?

The federal qualifying widow or widower tax filing status is available for two years for widows and widowers (surviving spouses) with dependents after their spouse's death. While the surviving spouse cannot continue to claim an exemption for the deceased spouse, they may file jointly with the deceased spouse for the tax year in which the spouse has died, and they can claim the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly. For the next two tax years, the surviving spouse can file as a qualifying widow or widower if he or she maintains a household for the couple’s dependent children.

Key Takeaways

  • Qualifying widow/widower filing status applies to surviving spouses with dependents.
  • This allows the surviving spouse to file taxes jointly with the deceased spouse.
  • The qualifying widow/widower status applies the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly.

Understanding Qualifying Widow/Widower

The qualifying widow or widower tax filing status is not available in the year of the spouse's death. To qualify, the spouse must have qualified for the married filing jointly status in the year of the spouse's death. Additional IRS requirements include:

  • The taxpayer may not remarry.
  • A qualifying taxpayer must claim a qualifying dependent. Qualifying dependents are the spouse's children, step-children, or adopted children. The IRS does not allow foster children to qualify.
  • The qualifying dependent must live in the qualifying widow or widower's home for the full year. Temporary absences due to vacation, education, medical treatment, military service, or business activities are acceptable, as long as it is “reasonable to assume that the absent person will return to the home after the temporary absence” and the home is kept up during the absence.
  • The surviving spouse has paid over one-half the costs associated with maintaining the home. Expenses include the mortgage or rent payments, property taxes, utilities, and groceries.

Advantages of Qualifying Widow/Widower

An individual may pay less in federal income taxes when filing as a qualifying widow or widower. The qualifying widow or widower can enjoy the same standard deduction amount as married couples filing jointly, and, as of 2018, qualifying widows and widowers enjoy the same tax bracket as married couples filing jointly. This gives widowed spouses two years to transition financially to the higher tax burden of a single, unmarried filer. For example, if the deceased spouse passed away in 2018, the surviving spouse can use the qualifying widow or widower status to enjoy married filing jointly standard deductions and tax brackets for the tax years 2019 and 2020.

Lower taxes are especially helpful when the surviving spouse is paying funeral costs, final expenses, and general expenses associated with maintaining a home and rearing children. The reduced tax burden makes it easier for a surviving spouse to continue to provide for his or her children, and to transition to a single, unmarried filer, or head of household status.

In addition, if the qualifying dependent is born or dies during the year, a taxpayer may still file under the qualified widow or widower status. Again, they must have paid more than one-half the costs of maintaining the home during the child's life, or before the child's birth. Also, the child must have lived with the qualifying taxpayer during the year.