Filing Taxes When Married: Jointly vs. Separately

When you’re married, you have a lot to think about when it comes to money and managing finances, including whether to file your taxes jointly or separately. Learn the advantages of filing jointly versus separately, and how filing taxes separately can affect your taxes.

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Married filing jointly vs. separately. 

Most married couples choose to file jointly to take advantage of tax credits and deductions. Some of the more common credits and deductions that are available for married couples, but either are not available or are not as advantageous for taxpayers who are married and filing separately include:

  • The earned income tax credit
  • The student loan interest deduction
  • The tuition and fees deduction
  • The child and dependent care tax credit
  • The adoption tax credit

“You’ll usually pay more in taxes when you file separately, which is the deciding factor for most people.”

When should married couples file taxes separately?

  • Tax liabilities
    There are some scenarios where it may make more sense to file separately. One is if you have a specific reason to keep your tax liabilities independent. For a variety of reasons, divorcing or separated couples may not be willing to file their taxes jointly.

    Filing separately may also be appropriate if one spouse suspects the other of tax evasion. If this is the case, the innocent spouse should file separately to avoid potential tax liability due to the behavior of the other spouse. When you file jointly, you and your spouse are both responsible for all the information you report, so be certain that all details are completely accurate for both of you.
  • Separate itemized deductions 
    Another reason is if one of you has a lot of itemized deductions that don’t apply to the other person. For example, if you have out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceeds 7.5% of your adjusted gross income. If you file jointly and double your income, it will be a lot harder to write off those expenses. 
  • Owing on your taxes
    If you choose to file separately because you or your spouse will owe money on your tax return, the IRS will not apply your refund to your spouse’s balance. That could be a way for you to get a refund. Your spouse may owe more, though.

How does getting married affect taxes?

Marriage can affect taxes in many ways.  While everyone’s situation is different, there are some tax benefits of marriage that help you pay less taxes. Plus, you’ll have tax options as spouses that single filers don’t. Other tax changes after marriage are related to paperwork you should complete.1

  • Marriage can change your tax brackets
    Tax brackets are different for each filing status, so your income may no longer be taxed at the same rate as it was when you were single. When you are married and file a joint return, your income is combined, which may bump one or both of you into a higher tax bracket.
  • Changes to your W-4 tax form
    It may be wise to change your Form W-4 with your employer to reflect a change in marital status, as your form entries will be different than they were in previous years.
  • Filing status options
    Once you get married, the only tax filing statuses that can be used on your tax return are Married Filing Jointly (MFJ) or Married Filing Separately (MFS).
  • Social Security
    You should wait to file your return until after the name change process has been completed to avoid any complications that could arise if the name on the return does not match the Social Security number on file with the Social Security Administration.

The tax benefits of marriage:

  • Gift taxes and estate planning
    Spouses can give unlimited gifts of cash or other property to one another free of gift taxes. This provision has important implications for estate planning purposes, so be sure to review any estate plan you may have previously had once you get married. 
  • Larger deduction for charitable contributions
    Donating cash can mean getting a deduction, helping you lower your taxable income. For your 2021 taxes, a new rule related to the CARES Act allows an above-the-line deduction of $300 for gifts of cash to charity. However, those who are married filing jointly can double that amount and deduct $600.

As you become familiar with the different processes of tax filing when you’re married, be aware of how your tax situation could change in the future. Changes in your combined income, qualifications for additional tax credits, or an increase in debt will influence your tax filing. If you were ever to separate, choosing to file taxes separately will avoid any liability relating to your soon-to-be-ex’s finances.

There isn’t one right answer for every married couple when it comes to your taxes. How you choose to file together depends on your personal circumstances and many variables surrounding income, debt, expenses, and liabilities. The best course of action is usually to file jointly as a married couple and claim as many credits as you can, but if you think you could save money by filing separately, consult with a tax professional.

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A New York Life financial professional can help determine what’s right for you.

1 “How Does Marriage Affect Taxes?” H&R Block. HR Block

This material is for informational purposes only. Neither New York Life nor its agents provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Please consult your own tax, legal, or accounting professional before making any decisions.