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Filing options for married taxpayers

If you’re married, you may not be aware of your tax filing options and assume that filing a return jointly with your spouse is the only choice available to you. In fact, you can file separate returns. It’s tricky, though. There are specific situations where filing separately makes sense, and other times where it doesn’t. It’s important to choose the right method, because once you file jointly, you can’t amend your return to filing separately.   

There are no rules of thumb on when it makes sense to file separately. Although in most cases, filing jointly will produce the most beneficial results, tax law has grown so complex that a great number of factors need to be considered. So what’s the real difference between the two options?  

Married Filing Jointly (MFJ) 

  A Black man and woman sit on a blue couch in front of a laptop together, looking at some papers

Married filing jointly means that you and your spouse will file just one tax return, with income and deductions for both of you. The IRS usually encourages couples to file jointly. You’ll usually get a lower tax rate this way, and the IRS offers some tax breaks for joint returns. Some common benefits available to joint filers include: 

  • Earned Income Credit (EIC)

  • Dependent care credit  

  • Tuition credits  

  • Child-care credits (unless you lived apart from July to December)  

  • American Opportunity Credit  

  • Lifetime Learning Credit for education expenses  

  • Student interest loan deductions  

  • More limited IRS contribution deduction 

  • Lower limit on capital losses 

If you live in a community property state, such as Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin, a joint return is also much more convenient, as it avoids some tricky tax rules on separate returns.  

Married Filing Separately (MFS) 

There are some cases where filing separately may be a better choice. Filing separately means that you will each file your own tax return and keep your income and deductions separate from your spouse’s.   

You may want to file separate returns if it means some deductions become available. For example, the spouse with the lower income may be eligible for a medical expense deduction if their income is kept separate, but not if it’s combined. Keep in mind, your state income tax return could be impacted by your filing status selection on your federal return. Before finalizing your decision, be sure to consider the impact to both your federal and state returns. 

There are a few reasons to file separately even if doing so means you collectively pay more tax or get less of a refund. One is when you and your spouse keep separate finances as a rule. Another is to avoid being liable for each other’s amounts due. When filing jointly, the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.   

The best way to know for sure which method of filing is the best fit is to prepare the return both ways and compare the results. This means you’d have to prepare three returns—the joint return, and two separate returns—and who has time for that? 

Happily, most tax professionals can use their software, along with their knowledge of tax law and how it applies to unique separate filing situations, to determine whether it’s likely that filing separately would be better from a tax due or refund perspective. If your preparer isn’t offering this service, you might be missing out!    

If you want to be sure you’re not leaving tax money on the table, turn to a tax professional to help you file. Padgett’s network of CPAs and EAs can help you determine which method of filing is the best fit so you don’t have to worry. Find a location near you today!  

Do you have the support you need to manage your small business bookkeeping? Contact us to schedule an appointment to speak with a local small business advisor.

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