Can married people file separate tax returns?

There are plenty of reasons to file jointly, but there are special cases that make filing separately the wiser option.
There are plenty of reasons to file jointly, but there are special cases that make filing separately the wiser option.

You love your spouse. You share everything together. Carpooling the kids to soccer practice. Changing Junior's diapers. Heck, you even share your mother-in-law during the holidays. When it comes to filing taxes, should you share your tax returns too? You can, but perhaps you shouldn't.

While many married couples combine both incomes and deductions by filing a joint tax return, they can also file separately. Whether you should is a different question. It all depends on your circumstances. Married couples are, in some ways, penalized at tax time if they file jointly. In other words, they pay more income tax than they would have paid if they remained single and filed individually. But the government made the tax-rate disparities between single and joint filers less burdensome in 2013 for those in the two lowest tax brackets.


You have to remember that if you're married and file separately, it's not the same as if you were filing as a single person. All it means is that you're not taking legal responsibility for your spouse's tax return. In a few instances, separate returns also mean a tax savings, especially if one spouse has a mountain of medical expenses. The spouse with the expenses might be able to itemize medical costs if their doctor bills add up to 10 percent or more of their adjusted gross income [sources: Bell, Wicker].

You might want to file separately if your spouse is, shall we say, a bit shady in the way he or she prepares his or her tax returns. Once you sign a joint return, you are legally obligated, not only for the tax bill, but for any issue that might arise afterwards [source: Wicker]. If you are a victim of an unscrupulous spouse, you can plead ignorance to the Internal Revenue Service, but you must prove that you were completely unaware of any of his or her tax shenanigans.

If everything is on the up and up, however, it might not be advantageous to file separately. You could lose various tax credits, deductions and the earned-income credit. Having kids is a big bonus at tax time. However, if you file separately, your child-tax credit will be reduced. Additionally, the amount of any capital gains losses is split between you and your spouse. And another one thing more: Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin make filing separately a bit more complicated [source: Bell].


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bell, Kay: Is filing taxes jointly a good idea?" (Oct. 15, 2014)
  • Tax Policy Center. "Marriage Penalty." (Oct. 15, 2014)
  • Wicker, Alden. "Tax Tim: Should a Married Couple Ever File Separately?" LearnVest. Feb. 26, 2014. (Oct. 15, 2014)