Should you and your spouse file taxes jointly or separately?

March 3, 2023
4 min

The Reasons to File Together

Married couples who file jointly are eligible for lower tax rates compared to those who file separately. This can result in a lower overall tax liability for the couple.  This can create additional money to save and invest, or use for other necessities.  Joint filers may be eligible for various tax credits, such as the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit, which can reduce their tax liability or increase their refund. Married couples filing jointly can also take advantage of higher contribution limits for retirement savings accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s. Also, it can simplify the tax filing process for married couples, as they only need to file one tax return instead of two.

A drawback of filing taxes separately as a married couple is that both individuals are required to select the same deduction method, even if one spouse would benefit more from using a different method. In the case where one spouse chooses to itemize deductions, the other spouse is also required to itemize, even if their total itemized deductions fall short of the standard deduction. For instance, if one spouse has $10,000 in itemized deductions and the other has only $1,500, the latter must claim the smaller amount instead of the standard deduction. Thus, it's only beneficial to file separately for tax savings if one spouse's deductions are substantial enough to offset the other spouse's foregone deduction amount.

There are other reasons besides protecting oneself from unfavorable tax outcomes for choosing to file separately, and this approach may even benefit happily married couples. One such scenario is when a couple doesn't have children, and one spouse earns substantially more than the other while the other has significant potential itemized deductions.

Tax filing with calculator and documents

The Reasons to File Seperately

Both spouses are responsible for the accuracy of the tax return and any tax owed, including penalties and interest if applicable. This means that if there are any errors or discrepancies on the return, both spouses may be held liable for any resulting tax debt or penalties. Married couples who file separately may be eligible for certain deductions and credits that are not available to those who file jointly. For example, if one spouse has significant medical expenses, they may be able to claim a deduction that would not be available if they filed jointly.

Some tax deductions and credits are phased out based on income. Filing jointly can result in a higher combined income, which could result in the loss of certain deductions or credits. Filing taxes jointly can be difficult if there are financial issues in the marriage, such as one spouse owing back taxes or having significant debt. In these cases, it may be better to file separately to avoid any potential liability for the other spouse. In the case of divorce or separation, the assets and liabilities of the couple may be divided unequally, which can result in one spouse being held responsible for more than their fair share of the tax liability from a joint tax return.

For instance, consider a situation where one spouse is a doctor making $300,000 annually, while the other is a teacher earning $50,000. The teaching spouse incurred $12,000 in unreimbursed medical expenses due to surgery during the year. The IRS guidelines state that only expenses exceeding 7.5% of the filer's AGI (formerly 10% for most taxpayers) can be claimed as miscellaneous itemized deductions.

If the couple opts for joint filing, the teacher's medical expenses won't be deductible since they amount to less than the 7.5% threshold of $26,250 ($350,000 x 7.5%). On the other hand, if they file separately, the teacher's expenses would easily surpass their individual threshold for medical deductions, which in this case would be $3,750 (7.5% of $50,000) based solely on their Adjusted Gross Income. 

Although joint filing may be the better option for this couple under normal circumstances, filing separately could be more advantageous during the year when a significant medical expense is incurred.

Final Thoughts

The main point is that deciding whether to file taxes jointly or separately as a married couple involves various factors. If a couple has no dependents or education expenses and there is a significant difference in their incomes, filing separately can be advantageous, especially if the spouse with the lower income is eligible for substantial itemized deductions. Additionally, filing separately may be appropriate in situations such as divorce, separation, or seeking relief from tax fraud or evasion liability. 

However, it is important to note that filing separately may also result in the loss of certain tax credits and limitations on deductions, which are some of its drawbacks. To determine the best option for maximizing their tax return or minimizing their tax bill, it is advisable for couples to calculate both scenarios.

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