As you prepare your tax returns, one of the first things you have to determine is what filing status you should claim. Most unmarried taxpayers end up using the single filing status, but there's another option called head of household that offers some benefits. If you can file as a head of household, it's usually smart to do so, but you have to meet the requirements for head of household status to get favorable tax treatment.

Let's learn more about head of household to see whether you can qualify.

Why should I want to be a head of household?

The biggest benefit of being a head of household is that a different set of tax brackets applies. The brackets for head of household are wider than for single status, allowing you to earn a larger amount of money and have it taxed at lower rates than single filers get. For instance, here are the tax brackets for the two filing statuses for the 2016 tax year, on which you'll file your return this April.

Tax Rate

Bracket for Singles

Bracket for Head of Household

10%

$0 to $9,325

$0 to $13,250

15%

$9,325 to $37,950

$13,250 to $50,400

25%

$37,950 to $91,900

$50,400 to $130,150

28%

$91,900 to $191,650

$130,150 to $210,800

33%

$191,650 to $416,700

$210,800 to $413,350

35%

$416,700 to $418,400

$413,350 to $441,000

39.6%

above $418,400

above $441,000

Data source: IRS.

From a practical standpoint, this can make a big difference in your taxes. For instance, say that you're unmarried with taxable income of $50,000. If you have to file as a single person, then you'll pay $8,238 in taxes. However, if you can claim status as a head of household, then your tax is just $6,838 -- or $1,400 less.

In addition, certain other tax provisions favor head of household status. In some cases, income limitations for tax breaks are higher if you file as a head of household. That can give you a credit or deduction that you might not have qualified to take if you'd had to file as a single person.

Tax returns with calculator, money, and glasses.

Image source: Getty Images.

Who can claim head of household status?

The IRS gives the requirements for being a head of household. To qualify, three things must apply:

  • You must be unmarried or considered unmarried as of the last day of the year.
  • You must pay more than half the cost of keeping up a home during the year.
  • You must typically have a qualifying person living with you for more than half the year.

The requirement that you be unmarried is relatively straightforward, although in some cases, a married person can still qualify. You must file separately, and the spouse must not live in your home during the last six months of the year. Paying more than half the cost of a home is also self-explanatory.

Where things get complicated is with who gets to be a qualifying person. The more common group is for qualifying children. Children must be under 19 at the end of the year, under 24 and a student, or disabled regardless of age. The child must be related to you, although grandchildren, siblings, or other relationships that are slightly more distant than your own child are allowed. The child must not file a joint return, and you must have the child live with you more than half the year and provide at least half of the financial support for the child during the year.

Sometimes, you can be a head of household even if you don't have a qualifying child. The broader group of qualifying relatives includes parents and other more distant relatives. Parents typically qualify if you can claim a dependent exemption for them, which typically requires providing the majority of the parent's financial support. More distant relatives require more conditions to be met, including not only being able to claim the person as a tax dependent but also meeting residence tests along with support.

How to get more information

The situations in which head of household status is available are too numerous to list here. However, the IRS publication that discusses head of household status has useful information, and you can look at it online at the IRS website linked above.

If you want to pay as little in tax as possible, it's worth looking into whether you can file your taxes as a head of household. If you qualify, thousands in tax savings could result from using that filing status rather than the alternatives. 

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