What Is a Head of Household?

By: Dave Roos  | 
Asian mother and baby
Families come in all shapes and sizes. Luckily, the IRS has a tax break for the person who holds the household together. d3sign/Getty Images

The modern American family comes in all different shapes, sizes and types. On the very same street, you might find a married couple with two young children, a grandmother raising a grandchild, a single father with a teenage daughter, and an older couple taking care of an elderly aunt. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) requires all Americans who earn income to pay federal income tax, but it charges a lower tax rate to unmarried individuals who are the primary financial support of children, parents and other relatives. For tax filing purposes, these individuals are called heads of household.

In the U.S., heads of household pay a significantly lower tax rate than single filers at the lower- to middle-income brackets. For example, in 2020, the 12 percent tax bracket for single filers covers all income from $9,876 to $40,125. For heads of household, the 12 percent bracket extends from $14,101 to $53,700. For earnings above that threshold, tax rates for single filers and heads of household are identical [source: Orem].


According to the IRS, you should file a tax return as a head of household if you're unmarried and pay more than 50 percent of the cost of keeping up a home for yourself and a dependent or other qualifying individual [source: IRS]. On the surface, this sounds simple enough, but this is the IRS we're talking about, so let's break down each requirement in more detail.

First, you need to be unmarried or "considered unmarried" on the last day of the tax year. Unmarried means you were never married or are legally divorced. "Considered unmarried" is a little trickier. You are considered unmarried if your spouse didn't live with you for at least half of the year. That excludes "temporary absences" like education (college, for example), illness and military service. If you and your spouse have a dependent child, the child must live with you for more than half the year. You and your spouse must also file separate returns [source: IRS].

Secondly, you must pay more than 50 percent of the cost of keeping a home for you and your dependent(s). To figure this out, you need to add up the total cost of maintaining the home, add up your contributions and see if you pay more than half of the total. Expenses to include are:

  • Rent or mortgage interest
  • Real estate taxes and property taxes
  • Insurance on the home or apartment
  • Utilities
  • Repairs and maintenance
  • Food eaten in the home [source: IRS]

You shouldn't include costs like clothing, education, medical expenses, transportation or vacations.

What else do you need to qualify as head of household?


Do You Need a Child to be a Head of Household?

Lastly, to qualify as a head of household, you need to have a dependent, either a qualifying child or another qualifying relative. For IRS purposes, a qualifying child is your biological child, a stepchild, an adopted or foster child, or any younger relative, including brothers and sisters, half-brothers and stepsisters, even nieces and nephews [source: IRS]. The child must be 18 or younger (23 or younger if a full-time student) and you must claim the child exemption on your taxes. The child must also live in your home for at least six months of the tax year [source: IRS].

Dependents can also be relatives other than children. If you pay more than 50 percent of a relative's total support for the year, and that person lives with you for at least half of the year, then that person is your dependent for IRS purposes. To calculate total support, include the following expenses:


  • Lodging (the fair market value of renting a room in your home)
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Education
  • Medical and dental care
  • Recreation
  • Transportation [source: IRS]

Please note, however, that if a relative earns more than $4,300 in gross annual income, even from Social Security benefits, he or she no longer qualifies as your dependent [source: IRS].

Confused yet? Welcome to the tax code.


Originally Published: Apr 9, 2012

Head of Household FAQ

Who qualifies as head of household?
Individuals who pay for more than half of a household's expenses, are considered unmarried during the given tax year, and have a qualifying child or dependent qualify as the head of household.
Can you file head of household if you are married?
You cannot file your taxes as head of household if you are currently married. Married couples can only file jointly or under "married but filing separately" status.
Can two people claim head of household?
In certain situations two people may be eligible to both file as head of household. It's a complicated option that requires both individuals to be unmarried, have a dependent, and pay 50 percent or more of household costs. However, you do have to prove that you maintain separate households to the IRS.
Can you claim head of household if you have no dependents?
In general, you do need to claim a dependent in order to file as head of household. However, in unique situations like custodial parents, you may be able to file as head of household without claiming a dependent.
Is it better to file head of household or married filing jointly?
If you're married, neither you nor your spouse can file as head of household. Your only options are to file as married filing jointly or married filing separately.

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Author's Note

I admit, up until the minute I began researching this article, I had no idea what it meant to qualify as a head of household for tax purposes. I'm so dense, all I could ever picture was a giant head floating above a house. But now it sort of makes sense. Yes, the IRS should charge a lower income tax rate to people who are burdened with supporting a child or other relative on their own. The next time I'm tempted to complain about the "married filing jointly" tax rate, I'll be more thankful that I have a spouse that supports me in many more ways than financially.

Related Articles

  • Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501" (Feb. 19, 2021.) http://www.irs.gov/publications/p501/ar02.html
  • Orem, Tina. "2020-21 Tax Brackets and Federal Income Tax Rates." Nerdwallet. Nov. 16, 2020 (Feb. 19, 2021) https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/taxes/federal-income-tax-brackets