Together in Life and Taxes Too?

If you are married, should you file a joint return with your spouse? Most couples do file a joint tax return that combines their income and deductions. But before you join that majority, you might want to re-examine your situation. There are instances when filing separately might be best. For example, filing separately could produce tax savings if one spouse has lots of medical expenses and a low income. That’s because the spouse with the medical bills might meet the 7.5% threshold needed to itemize medical costs on a separate return that reports just her income, but not on a joint return reporting all income combined.

If you suspect your spouse is cheating on his taxes, under-reporting income or over-reporting tax deductions, by filing separately, you will be liable only for the taxes on your own return if the IRS audits and determines additional taxes are due. If you did file a joint tax return, you still have some protection, since you could claim innocent spouse status, but you might have to show that you didn’t know about your spouse’s schemes to save taxes.

If your marriage is on the rocks, you and your spouse may not agree about how tax refunds should be shared or who should pay any additional taxes due. Filing separate tax returns can resolve that dispute, with each spouse liable for the taxes on their own return.

If you are living in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin). filing separately might not be beneficial. In community property states, most income and expenses must be combined and reported half on each tax return. That complicates tax return preparation and requires coordination and sharing tax information. And if errors later are uncovered by the IRS, innocent spouse rules won’t help you, since they only apply to joint returns. See IRS Publication 555, Community Property, for more information.

Married filing separately has other drawbacks and limitations. If one spouse itemizes tax deductions, so must the other spouse, even if she would be better off claiming the standard tax deduction. Forget taking special tax deductions and credits, such as interest on student loans, child and dependent care tax credit, earned income tax credit, exclusions for savings bond income used for education, education credits, credit for adoption expenses, and credit for the elderly or disabled. None of these are allowable on separate returns. People who are married filing separately will pay tax on more of their Social Security benefits, can’t do an IRA rollover, and can claim only half the capital losses they could on a joint return.

If you are in doubt about your best filing option, tax preparation software like TurboTax will figure your taxes as both joint and separate filers and use the method that produces the lower tax bill. Chances are that married filing jointly will be your best choice. Read more about filing status in this FAQ.

Comments (15) Leave your comment

  1. My wife and I are separated and in a disputed divorce process. We have no legal separation or maintenance order at this time, and no divorce decree yet. For 2013, I wanted to file jointly with my wife to minimize our overall tax burden, but she insists on filing married filing separately. Although I no longer live in our home, I made all our mortgage payments for 2013 from my separate bank account. She made no mortgage payments. However, she now expects to deduct 1/2 of the mortgage interest on her separate tax return. Since I made all the payments and since I preferred to file jointly, I plan to claim all of the mortgage interest on my separate return. I realize that if we do not coordinate, it will trigger an audit/investigation of both our taxes, but I cannot get agreement from her to coordinate. If I take all of the mortgage interest because I paid all of it myself from a separate (non-joint) account, will I be able to defend this to the IRS if my wife claims a portion of it and we get audited?

  2. My husband and I both used Turbo Tax for 2012 but filed separately as we were not married until 2013. As I’m filing taxes this year (married jointly) it is asking for info from 2012 taxes, who’s should I be looking at? Both? His? Mine? Adding them together? I’m baffled at this point, but I’d like to do them myself. Should I stick with joint or do separate returns?

  3. Hello,

    My spouse and I both used turbo tax in previous filing years as individual filers. We were married in 2013 and need to file as married. I can’t believe that turbo tax won’t allow us to merge data files, but regardless, how do we enter all of my carryover numbers, specifically capital losses, as we’re using his return as the main return, and adding my information in position two?

    Thanks,

    Chris Bradley

  4. Hi,

    My husband didn’t work in 2012 and we have 3 children but i filed “head of household” and not include him and got the refund already for my 3 dependents. Someone told me to file “Married filing Joint” and I did. However, he has child support case open. Now, I no longer working anymore and he is. What can i do for next year tax refunds? Please advise

  5. Hi,

    I live in California and my wife and i filed for divorce this year. We had discussed filing as “married filing separately”, but now she doesn’t want to share her tax info. I suspect that she filed as single even though she knows we needed to file that way. Any advice on what to do when she won’t share tax info would be appreciated.

    • Hi Greg,
      I can’t give you tax advice on this issue. I can only tell you the law. You should file according to the law. If you were not divorced last year and not legally separated you are still considered married so you may file married filing separately. If you have obtained a final decree of divorce or separate maintenance by the last day of your tax year you must follow your state law to determine if you are divorced or legally separated.

      Thank you,
      Lisa Greene-Lewis

    • Greg,

      If your wife lied on her tax return and said she was single when she was still married, that doesn’t affect your tax return. But you do have a right to see her tax return: she should attach it to her Income and Expense Declaration, which is required paperwork in California, or you can simply send her a request to produce the tax return she filed.

  6. I got married this year, but my wife does not work and is not a citizen of the United States. However, I am responsible for supporting her until she is able to work. Can I claim her on my taxes?

    • Hi Antonio,
      Yes you can receive a personal exemption for her as long as you are a U.S. citizen or a resident alien. You cannot, however claim a spouse as a dependent.

      Thank you,
      Lisa Greene-Lewis

    • Antonio, You and your wife should consider filing a joint income tax return, even though your wife has no income. That way you can get lower tax rates and claim her personal exemption.

  7. in 1997 i let my sister in law do my taxes i had three sm. children at the time and i never recieved the earned income credit is it possible i would still get that back

    • Hi Barbara,
      Unfortunately, the right to claim a credit such as the earned income credit must be made within 3 years of the return due date.

      Thank you,
      Lisa Lewis

      • I again repeat, that wiinrtg to Judy Kaye about anything illegal, corrupt or unethical, going on within HER judicial system…is signing your death warrant! This woman is one of the most outrageously criminal and self centered witches, the court system has ever known ( in such tremendous power)…and believe me there are more of them.. they are just not in complete power like her! My advice to everyone, is to stay away from complaining to anyone in power at OCA…you will regret it and they know it!

  8. You forgot two important points…turbo tax does nothing to help you “try” switching between JFS or MFS. Second, in some states due to their straight line income tax brackets, MFS might actually slightly lower your federal return amount, but greatly increase your state return, to the point that the total return amount for both is greater with MFS, instead of filing jointly.

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