|For years, I
have received e-mails from single taxpayers complaining that
they were not allowed to file as "head of household" for income
tax purposes, even though they were the heads of their own
households. These complaints came from solo singles, most
if whom were elderly divorcees and widows who were struggling to
maintain a household for one.
The complaints would usually
argue "I'm living on a fixed income and must maintain my own
household and pay all of the bills myself. I am the head
of my own household and could use the tax break associated with
the 'head of household status' but Uncle Sam won't let me.
That's not fair."
I had to
explain to these single taxpayers that in order to claim
head-of-household status, Congress had decided that an unmarried
taxpayer had to be supporting a dependent child or relative who
lived in their household.
that type of a response would no longer be accurate. The
definition of head-of-household has been narrowed considerably
more due to changes in the tax codes made in 2004. As a
result, many single taxpayers who have dependents living with
them are no longer permitted to file as head-of-household and
get the corresponding tax break associated with that preferred
many single parents have been pushed from the head-of-household
category to the less-preferred "single" filing status, resulting
in a significant increase in income taxes.
In the past,
parents with an adult child at home could claim
head-of-household status even if the child had a lot of income
and even if the parent could not claim a dependency exemption
new rules, the parent must be able to claim a dependency
exemption for the child - a "qualifying child" in tax lingo - to
qualify for head-of-household status. And for 2005, a child
cannot be a qualifying child if he or she turned 19 by the end
of the year (or 24 for a full-time student).
child might still be a "qualifying relative," enabling the
parent to claim head-of-household status if certain other tests
are met, but not if the child's income is over $3,200 a year.
The vast majority of adults, even if they are only working part
time at a low-income job, make more than $3,200 per year.
parent of an older child who has a reasonable amount of income
may well pay more tax when tax returns are filed this year.
Many unmarried couples with children
also will be pushed out of the head-of-household status and have
to pay higher taxes as "single" filers.
Take the situation of an
unmarried man living with his unemployed girlfriend and her
young child. The family of three lives solely on his
In 2004, the man could claim his
girlfriend and her child both as his dependents and file his
return as a head of household, resulting in lower taxes. But for
2005, he may not use the child to claim head-of-household status
because he and the child are not blood related.
Formerly, the primary test was
the support test. The the man was eligible to file as
head-of-household because he supported a child living in his
Now the primary test is the
relationship test, and he would fail that because he and the
child are not related. And since the mother is not
employed, and therefore does not file income tax returns, no one
can claim this child as a dependent -- not even the person who
provides 100 percent of the child's financial support.
Because of other changes in the
law, the unmarried male breadwinner can't sneak in the back door
to claim head-of-household status on the theory that his
girlfriend's child is, in effect, his "foster child." Now,
for a taxpayer to claim head-of-household status because he
supports a "foster child," the child must be placed in the
taxpayer's home by some authorizing agency, such as a court or
These limitations to
head-of-household filing did not pop out of nowhere. They
were foreshadowed by other changes in the tax codes which
occurred in 2001.
That is when Congress changed the
definition of "foster child" for purposes of various tax
credits. As a result, many unmarried parents are no longer
able to claim the child credit and the earned-income credit.
Those deprived of these credits can lose thousands of dollars in
Prior to 2001, the tax code had two
requirements to determine whether a taxpayer qualified as a
foster parent for purposes of tax credits: (1) The child had to
live with the taxpayer the entire year; and (2) the taxpayer had
to provide more than half the financial support for the child.
Now, the child either must be a qualifying
relative or be placed in the home by a government agency.
The fact that the biological parent has court ordered custody of
the child doesn't count because such custody orders do not
pertain to the parent's new unmarried partner.
It is interesting how much has changed
over the past several years in terms of tax policy.
During the administration of President
Bill Clinton, an unmarried taxpayer who provided support for a
dependent child could file as head of household and claim
appropriate tax credits as a reward. Usher in President
George W. Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress, and the
perks are yanked, except for those related by blood, marriage,
One wonders just how much the so-called
"culture wars" have influenced Congress to manipulate tax laws
to the disadvantage of nontraditional families, while leaving
all of the preferences for married taxpayers raising their own
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
firstname.lastname@example.org. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and