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Married Filing Taxes Jointly vs. Married Filing Separately – Which Is Better?

By Kira Botkin

married couple computer taxesOnce per year, married couples have the option to get a short, amicable separation – at least, as far as the IRS is concerned. If you’re married, you have a decision to make when tax time rolls around: Should you file jointly or separately?

Choosing a filing status does not reflect upon your marriage – it’s about making the best decision for your financial situation. Since each method of tax filing has its own set of benefits, you may find that filing separately benefits both you and your spouse more than filing jointly, or the other way around.

Benefits of Filing Separately

1. Extra Deductions
Joint filing is almost always simpler, and it often results in a bigger tax break. However, if you and your spouse are savvy about your deductions (and have a lot of them), filing separately can save you money. Whether you’re eligible to deduct major expenses often hinges on whether your expenses exceed a set percentage of your income. By separating your salaries, you may have a better chance of meeting such income requirements.

For example:

  • Medical bills must exceed 10% of your income before you can deduct them.
  • Employee business expenses, such as mileage, along with other miscellaneous deductions, must exceed 2% of your income to be deductible.
  • Casualty losses, such as damage to your home or your car from a storm, or the theft of an expensive item because of home burglary, are eligible for deduction only if the portion that homeowners’ insurance doesn’t cover is more than 10% of your income plus $100.

2. Protection From Tax Debts or Defaulted Student Loans
Hidden financial troubles (such as old debt and tax issues) often aren’t revealed until tax time. If you or your spouse have old tax debts, the IRS can seize money from your refund. The government can also garnish a refund to pay off any defaulted student loans.

One benefit to filing separately is that your and your spouse’s refunds are processed separately. If your spouse’s refund is subject to seizure, but yours is not, you can protect it by filing separately. If you file jointly, you cannot. Also, if one of you will have a tax bill you can’t cover, filing separately protects the other spouse from salary garnishment and property seizure.

3. Protection From Prosecution
Hopefully you don’t face this situation, but if you believe your spouse will falsify a tax return, you can get protection from audits and prosecution by filing your tax return separately. If you file jointly and your spouse has falsified or otherwise “edited” the tax return, you can be held equally liable because you signed off on the joint return. Though the IRS offers “innocent spouse” protection in cases of tax fraud, you’ll face the challenge of proving that you had no knowledge of the fraudulent activity.

couple filing taxes

Benefits of Filing Jointly

1. Getting Credit for Your Family
While filing separately divides your income and makes you eligible for more deductions, only filing jointly makes you eligible for family-related tax credits and deductions. If you file separately, you pass up your chance to claim these well known benefits:

  • The child tax credit
  • The American Opportunity Credit (for college costs) and other education tax deductions and credits
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Student loan interest deductions

These deductions can significantly reduce your tax liability – especially if you have children – and make married filing jointly the more prudent choice.

2. Retirement Contributions
If you took a capital loss last year or if you want to make tax-deductible contributions to an IRA retirement account, you’ll find more generous requirements when you file jointly as opposed to separately. Based on your adjusted gross income, the IRS determines maximum IRA contribution limits, and after crunching those numbers, joint filing almost always looks better.

3. Itemizing Your Returns
Itemizing your taxes is more complicated, but sometimes yields more deductions. If you choose to file separately, and one of you itemizes, then you both must itemize. In other words, one of you can’t take the standard deduction while the other itemizes. Often, in this case, you’ll find that one of your returns suffers – which could mean a bigger tax bill overall.

Final Word

If you’re not sure which method of filing is best for you, change your filing status in your tax preparation program to determine which gives you a lower tax bill. Keep in mind that unless you fall under one of the special situations listed above, most couples are better off filing jointly.

While many divorcing couples file separately, if you’ve been living apart for most of the year, you may qualify to file as head of household, or even single, which can make more credits and deductions available than married filing separately.

Overall, major purchases and life events usually make the difference in which filing status is best for you. If you think it’s the right year to file separately, make sure you have a professional prepare your taxes, or at least review your self-completed forms. And keep in mind that the IRS will allow you to later amend your filing status to married filing jointly if you originally filed separately, but not the other way around.

Have you ever filed as married filing separately? How did it work?

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Laura-Holster-Dean/100000053313911 Laura Holster Dean

    You can file a form to change your filing status.Turbo tax messed us up on a return. It took 3 years, but we got it fixed. The form is 1040x.

  • Kelly

    My question is about college expenses for my daughter. I am remarried and I file separately from my husband. It tells me that I can’t claim college expenses on her when I file that way. WHY? I am the one paying for her education not her dad or step dad.

    • Kira Botkin

      Because that’s how the IRS regulation is written. Doesn’t matter who’s paying for it – as outlined in the article, there are some credits or deductions that just aren’t available when you file as married filing separately. For the years your daughter is in college, it might be financially worthwhile to file jointly.

  • Msterri870

    i am a newlywed and i am concerned about filing joint or separate. our combined income for the year is over 60,000 n we have 3 dependents

    • Kira Botkin

      If you have children, filing jointly is almost certainly the better option. If these are dependents other than children that only one of you can qualify to take as a dependent, separate might be better.

  • dawn

    I made $14500 and my husband made $88000. We have no children to deduct.. E pointy jabber house interest, property taxes, and done union dues. So we are trying to decide if we should file separate or jointly?

    • Kira Botkin

      If the home interest and property taxes amounts are high, you might be better off doing it separately. If they’re low, ie you’d be better off not itemizing anyway, it probably doesn’t make a difference.

  • Missyscats27

    Hi me and my husband were wanting to no Wht is the best way for us to file. I have one child we can file on. We both made together around 51 thousand. We don’t no how to file?

    • Kira Botkin

      That really isn’t enough information for me to know your situation, but if you file separately you don’t get the child tax credit. So it’s probably best to file jointly.

  • Stacy

    I am in the process of a divorce. I grossed $75,000, have 3 dependent children, 2 in college. My soon to be ex husband is disabled, and his only income was approximately $24,000 in SSDI, of which he had no taxes deducted. We have no mortgage interest deductions. I have been living apart from him since August 1st. Would it be better for me to file separately?

    • Kira Botkin

      You’ll lose your child tax credit and the educational deductions for your college-age kids – I wouldn’t do it. In most tax programs you can do the whole shebang, see your refund, and then go back to the beginning and check off married filing separately to see what that does – I’d do that first before committing to one or the other. But you’re probably going to come up better with doing it jointly.

  • Melissa

    My spouse and I are newly weds. I made 10,000.00 and he made 112,000.00, there’s a baby on the way and we were debating if we should file separately or joint. And if I file separately will I receive school credit for tuition paid?

    • Kira Botkin

      Baby doesn’t matter until it actually arrives, so that is not a factor. If you file separately you will not be able to use most education credits, but if you file jointly your education credits and your personal exemption and deduction will pretty much cancel out your entire income. Pretty much either way you will not owe any taxes on your own income, so if you file jointly your husband will get to benefit from your education credits. I would file jointly.

  • mel

    We are filing married fiing jointly. My husband made 100,000. & i made 6300.00 my question is do i have to claim the 6300. i made???

    • Kira Botkin

      Yes… You don’t get out of paying taxes on your income just because your husband is paying much more on his!

  • Tom

    I’m a newlywed and self employed. I have done itemized deductions in the past and grossed @$45,000. My wife typicaly takes the standard dedution and made $30,000. She has lots of student loans. We have no children and no mortgage. Should we file seperatly or jointly? Thanks for helping us all!

    • Kira Botkin

      Either way, you both have to file the same (itemized or standard). Student loans are not itemized so she still gets to deduct that interest. Unless you have a ton of deductions, adding your wife who has few deductions would probably mean you’d be better off doing the standard.

  • Colby White

    Hello Wondering if you could still response to my question. I make 71K and my wife makes 44K. We have no kids and no real deductions besides our house and taxs (house worth 212k)

    • Kira Botkin

      If you don’t have any deductions, there is no advantage to filing separately.

  • Houston

    my ex is still eligible to get alimony until June2014. My wife and I were wondering if it were better to file separately or jointly. We were wondering if combining our incomes has any influences on whether she could get alimony or not…

    • Kira Botkin

      Not to my knowledge – that would effectively be forcing the new wife to pay the ex-wife’s alimony.

      Also, in case you were wondering, alimony is deductible from your income, and the ex-wife would have to pay income tax on it.

  • carol

    I made a mistake and filed married but separate, can I re-file amended as married filing jointly?

  • djorie

    i am paying in federal student under income based plan which yearly you submit your tax return. If I should marry and file separately will this keep my payments based on my income only.

  • needtaxhelp

    I made $145,000 last year and my husband owes about that much in student loans. Should we file joint or separate?

  • magic

    If I claim my wife as and exemption and file separately since she did not work or make any money. And she has a defaulted student loan can they touch my refund

  • Rubby

    If my husband filed as head of house hold and I filed as married filing jointly but I didn’t but his income just mine bc he had done his already would that make a difference??

  • Cali

    Can I file married separate and itemize my deductions if my husband doesn’t plan to file. We got married this past 7/2013 and he was laid off in November. He owes back taxes and child support so it’s not in my best interest to file with him and I have deductions from my, home and child.

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