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How Widows and Widowers Can Get a Much-Needed Tax Break

By Dan Caplinger – Mar 25, 2019 at 4:02PM

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If you have a dependent child, then the IRS will give you a chance to file as a qualifying widow or widower.

When it comes to figuring out how much your final tax bill is, a lot depends on whether you qualify for a favorable filing status on your tax return. You can always file as a single person or using either of the two filing statuses for married people. But in some situations, you can also select a filing status that offers you larger tax benefits.

One such filing status is known as qualifying widow or widower. If you meet the requirements for this filing status, then for a period of time after the death of your spouse, you can essentially get almost the same treatment as those filing a joint return. However, there are rules you need to follow in order to meet the standards for qualifying widows or widowers, which we'll look at below.

Older woman with a cane sitting on couch next to a younger woman reading a book

Image source: Getty Images.

The biggest benefit from the qualifying widow and widower tax break

The primary reason why filing as a qualifying widow or widower is better than filing as a regular single person or head of household is that the tax brackets that apply to qualifying widows and widowers are the most generous available. More of your income will get taxed at lower rates, reducing your overall tax liability. You can see how the brackets compare below for the 2018 tax year.

Tax Rate

Bracket for Qualifying Widow(er)s

Bracket for Singles

Bracket for Head of Household


$0 to $19,050

$0 to $9,525

$0 to $13,600


$19,050 to $77,400

$9,525 to $38,700

$13,600 to $51,800


$77,400 to $165,000

$38,700 to $82,500

$51,800 to $82,500


$165,000 to $315,000

$82,500 to $157,500

$82,500 to $157,500


$315,000 to $400,000

$157,500 to $200,000

$157,500 to $200,000


$400,000 to $600,000

$200,000 to $500,000

$200,000 to $500,000


above $600,000

above $500,000

above $500,000

Data source: IRS.

As you can see, all of the brackets for a qualifying widow or widower are wider than the corresponding brackets for either single filers or heads of household. That can add up to thousands in tax savings, and the more you make, the more you'll save.

In addition, there are benefits beyond the tax brackets that qualifying widows and widowers get. For instance, standard deductions are $24,000 for qualifying widows and widowers, compared to $12,000 for singles and $18,000 for heads of household. In many cases, the income limitations for certain tax breaks are also higher for qualifying widows and widowers, making it easier to meet the standards to receive those tax breaks.

What rules apply to qualifying widows and widowers?

The IRS has simple rules that govern whether you can use the qualifying widow or widower filing status:

  • You have to have been eligible to file a joint return with your spouse for the year in which your spouse passed away. It's irrelevant whether you actually did file a joint return; you merely need to have been entitled to do so.
  • No more than two years can have passed between your spouse's death and the tax year for which you're filing a return.
  • You must not have remarried before the end of the tax year for the return in question.
  • You must have a child or stepchild who lived in your home throughout the year except for temporary absences, unless exceptions apply for certain unusual conditions.
  • You must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year.

You can learn more from this IRS publication on qualifying widow or widower filing status. It can help you parse through the requirements to see if you qualify.

Use the breaks you deserve

For a parent raising a child, the loss of a spouse is emotionally and financially catastrophic. By using what the IRS gives you in tax savings for qualifying widows and widowers, you'll put yourself in at least a somewhat better situation to handle these tragic events as well as you can.

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