Married Filing Jointly

A married couple can report their incomes, deductions, credits, and exemptions on the same tax return.

Author: David Bickerton
David Bickerton
David Bickerton
Asset Management | Financial Analysis

Previously a Portfolio Manager for MDH Investment Management, David has been with the firm for nearly a decade, serving as President since 2015. He has extensive experience in wealth management, investments and portfolio management.

David holds a BS from Miami University in Finance.

Reviewed By: Hassan Saab
Hassan Saab
Hassan Saab
Investment Banking | Corporate Finance

Prior to becoming a Founder for Curiocity, Hassan worked for Houlihan Lokey as an Investment Banking Analyst focusing on sellside and buyside M&A, restructurings, financings and strategic advisory engagements across industry groups.

Hassan holds a BS from the University of Pennsylvania in Economics.

Last Updated:November 22, 2023

What Is Married Filing Jointly?

Married people who got married before the end of the tax year can file as married people filing jointly. A married couple can report their incomes, deductions, credits, and exemptions on the same tax return while filing their taxes as a married couple.

When only one partner earns a considerable income, filing jointly with your spouse is frequently the best option. 

It may be more advantageous to file separately, though, if both spouses are employed, their income and itemized deductions are substantial and drastically disproportionate.

Whether married couples should file individually or jointly depends on various factors. It makes sense to compute the tax returns both ways if a couple isn't sure whether filing status will result in the largest refund or lowest tax bill.

If a significant income gap between the pair and the lower-paid spouse is qualified for significant itemized deductions, couples without dependents or educational costs can generally profit from filing separately.

Just because two people are married doesn't mean the IRS requires them to file joint income tax returns. For various reasons, spouses can choose to file separate marriage returns, and some do.

However, there can be some drawbacks as well. Filing jointly typically leads to greater tax savings. The option best for you and your spouse can be determined by considering several things.

If you and your spouse were deemed legally wed on December 31, the final day of the tax year, you are eligible to submit a joint tax return. Those legally married on December 31, 2021, may file a joint 2021 return in 2022.

If you file jointly with your spouse, you'll be eligible for a bigger standard deduction and more lenient tax brackets. Married taxpayers who submit separate tax returns cannot claim certain tax benefits. 

However, they are exclusively accountable for the truthfulness of the data on their returns and the payment of any taxes owed on their filings.

It depends on how you define "legally married," which is the key phrase in this sentence. Even if you filed for divorce earlier in the year, the IRS states that you are still married if you don't obtain a divorce decision or judgment issued by a court on or before December 31. 

By the end of the year, you must have finalized your divorce.

Even while you and your spouse are not required to live together, if you and your spouse are formally separated by court order, you cannot file jointly. You are permitted to coexist as long as no court order dictating the conditions of your separation has been issued.

Married Filing Jointly vs. Separate Filing

If you need to employ the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) on a combined return, married filing separately (MFS) may be advantageous. This is only accurate if only one spouse is responsible for filing a separate return.

Other justifications for filing separate returns include:

(For reasons other than taxes, such as keeping separate funds)

To qualify for tax deductions like the deduction for medical expenses, the spouse with the lesser income must file a separate tax return. This is due to state tax regulations. 

For instance, if you file separate state returns, you can dramatically reduce your state tax liability. However, your state requires you to file using your federal filing status. Verify that your gains on the state side outweigh the cost of filing separate returns on the federal side.

Prepare your returns both ways to determine which will benefit you more: married filing jointly or married filing separately. Decide which filing status has the lowest net balance owed or refunded.

Both of you may be liable for the tax and any interest or penalties due if you choose married file jointly. Even though the other spouse earned all the income, one spouse may be liable for the total amount of taxes owed.

Both spouses must file individually if one spouse declines to file jointly. If one of you is eligible for head of household status, there is an exemption (HOH).

When filing their income-tax forms, married couples have a decision to make: they can do so jointly or individually. Most married persons automatically file joint returns, although filing separately may be preferable in rare cases. 

Although married filing separately is a rare file status, it has some tactical and legal benefits. Taxes can have a variety of effects on marriage. Even though every person's circumstances are unique, marriage has several tax advantages that can save you tax.

Additionally, as spouses, you will have tax alternatives that single filers do not. After getting married, further tax changes require paperwork from you.

The benefit of Married Filing Jointly

Married couples often receive the greatest tax benefits by filing jointly.

According to tax brackets for 2020, married couples filing jointly pay 10% tax on their first $19,750 of taxable income, while those filing separately pay 10% tax on their first $9,875 of taxable income. Following that, the rates continue to rise marginally.

Additionally, according to TurboTax, the IRS grants spouses filing jointly one of the largest standard deductions each year. The standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly in 2019 is $24,400. 

In contrast, the tax credit for those filing separately is only $12,200, the same as for single persons.

The fact that joint filers frequently qualify for significant savings in the form of tax credits, such as:

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a tax credit that "benefits working people with low to moderate income." The IRS has provided information on determining eligibility for you and your spouse.

  • The American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Education Tax Credits lower the amount of taxes owed by those who are:

    • Enrolled or who have a partner 
    • The kid whose tuition is for a graduate 
    • College compensation 
    • Reimbursement of adoption costs once a child has been lawfully adopted.
  • If you are working and need to pay a caregiver to take care of your child (as long as they are under 13) or a disabled spouse, you may be eligible for the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which helps reduce your child-care expenses.

  • No matter if you were married for the entire year or not, as long as you were legally wed by December 31, 2019, you are qualified to submit your taxes jointly.

When can married couples file separately?

In certain situations, married couples may choose to file their taxes separately. They are not obligated to file together. The following are some scenarios when married couples should file separately.

1. One partner has substantial tax responsibilities or risks.

Many couples find it difficult to talk about this, but it's crucial to remember that if one spouse has unpaid taxes when they first get married, both partners are responsible after they file a joint return.

Couples who are principals in a firm with significant tax risks, such as those in which one or both partners are partners, may also want to file separately because, in the case of a joint return, both spouses are responsible for the tax obligations of the other. 

Although "innocent spouse relief" laws are in place, the IRS is quite stringent about when they can be used. Simply claiming that "he or she never told me about it" will not absolve you of your obligation.

Even if they reside in a jurisdiction where community property is allowed, married couples may file as married filing separately if it is more advantageous for their circumstances. 

If you have to file separate returns because you owe capital gains on a jointly held investment, for example, state law will dictate how income and deductions are distributed.

2. Divorce or separation

The "filing separately" status was first introduced due to legal separations. Couples going through a divorce or separation may decide against filing their taxes jointly for various reasons.

3. Liability Issues

If one partner believes the other is evading taxes, filing apart may be the best course of action. The innocent spouse should file separately in that situation to prevent any unnecessary tax burden brought on by the other partner.

Alternatively, if the other fails to file tax returns, one partner may elect this status. Your medical expenses would have to be higher to qualify for any deductions if you and your spouse file jointly and both generate an income. 

However, if you file separately, your tax return will only include one of your paychecks, allowing you to deduct more of those costs sooner and reach the threshold more quickly.

4. Different Pay Grades or Deduction Amounts

Separate filing isn't just a way to shield yourself from a bad outcome. Even the most contentedly married couple today may benefit financially from taking this course.

The most common situation is with childless couples, where one spouse makes a lot more money, and the other has a lot of potential itemized deductions. Even while filing jointly would be preferable for this couple in a typical year, in the year of the significant medical bill, filing individually would be preferable.

5. If filing separately would result in greater tax savings for you

You can perform a side-by-side comparative assessment of each filing status to determine which would benefit you the most, or you can have your tax preparer do it for you. 

Individuals are free to select the status that will benefit them the greatest, and you can select a different status each year by submitting the same evaluation—one more thing to know if you're seriously considering filing separately. 

Even if your calculations show you'll save money by filing separately, state law may interfere with your goals. 

For this reason, if you reside in one of the following states: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin, everything a couple earns is often divided equally between the partners. 

Couples who file separately there have to disclose half of the income received by both spouses, which might negate the majority of the benefits of doing so.

It is advisable to file separately if you fall into any of the above conditions. This will save you from any future disputes.

Married Filing Jointly FAQs

Researched and authored by Drishti Kohli | LinkedIn

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