Filing Taxes When Married: Jointly vs. Separately

When you’re married, you have a lot to think about when it comes to managing finances. That includes deciding whether to file your taxes jointly or separately. Learn the advantages of filing jointly and the instances when filing separately makes sense.

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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 that are either 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. You’re ineligible for the deduction if you’re married and filing separately.
  • The tuition and fees deduction. Couples who are filing separately can’t take the American opportunity credit, which has a maximum of $2,500, for the first four years of higher education.
  • 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 scenarios where it may make sense to file separately. Many divorcing or separated couples, for example, prefer to keep their taxes separate.  Be aware that when you file jointly, you and your spouse are both responsible for all the information you report, so you need to be certain that all details are accurate. If you can’t be certain that your spouse’s information is accurate, it makes sense to file separately.

Itemized deduction considerations

If one of you has significant itemized deductions that don’t apply to the other person, it may be beneficial to file separately. For example, if one spouse has out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of his or her adjusted gross income, but it’s less than 7.5% of the couple’s joint adjusted gross income, it is worth filing separately so those significant expenses can be deducted.

Tax refund considerations

If you and your spouse file jointly and owe money on your tax return, the amount owed will need to be paid jointly, and any refund that you would otherwise get will be applied to the balance. If you file separately, you will get your refund, and you won’t need to use it to pay the amount your spouse owes. Your spouse will still need to pay that amount, though. So if your finances are mingled, there may not be any advantage to filing separately.

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. 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 bracket

When you are married and file a joint return, your income is combined, which may bump one of you into a higher tax bracket or dip one of you into a lower bracket. Note also that tax brackets are different for each filing status, so even if you and your spouse were being taxed at the same rate when you were single, your rate could change after your marriage.

Changes to your W-4 withholding

It may be wise to change your Form W-4, which you can access through your employer, to reflect a change in marital status, as your form entries will be different than they were before your marriage. This could change the amount that is withheld from your paycheck.

Filing status options

After you are married, the only tax filing statuses that can be used on your tax return are married filing jointly or married filing separately.

Social Security

If you are taking your spouse’s name after your marriage, you should wait until after the name change process has been completed to file your return. That way, you can avoid 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, so be sure to review any estate plan you have after you get married.

Deductible expenses

If one spouse owns a successful business, or makes significantly more than the other, that spouse may be able to take advantage of the other person’s unused tax deductions by claiming the other’s losses as a tax write-off.

Funding individual retirement accounts (IRAs)

Married couples filing jointly can contribute to two separate IRA accounts and receive substantial tax benefits. This is particularly helpful if one spouse is not working and would be ineligible to fund an IRA on their own. Additionally, the income limits for tax-deductible IRA contributions are significantly higher for married couples than they are for single individuals.

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. Should you separate, filing taxes separately will help you avoid liability relating to your soon-to-be-ex’s finances.

There isn’t one right answer for every married couple when it comes to taxes. How you choose to file depends on your personal circumstances and many variables surrounding income, debt, expenses, and liabilities. For most married couples, though, the best course of action is to file jointly as a married couple and take advantage of as many tax breaks as you can. If you think you could save money by filing separately, consult a tax professional.

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

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