Married Filing Separately

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Married taxpayers filing separate tax returns

Married taxpayers can choose between filing a joint tax return or a separate tax return. The Married Filing Separately filing status provides fewer tax benefits than filing joint returns, but taxpayers will need to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves which is the best filing status.

If you are married, then you and your spouse can file separate tax returns. The married filing separately (MFS) filing status is generally perceived as the least beneficial of all the filing statuses. That’s because MFS taxpayers are not eligible to claim the following tax benefits:

MFS taxpayers also have lower income phase-out ranges for the IRA deduction.

Additionally, MFS taxpayers must both claim the standard deduction or must both itemize their deductions. In other words, one MFS taxpayer cannot claim the standard deduction if the other spouse is itemizing.

Benefit of Filing Separately: Separation of Tax Liabilities

Does it make sense to file separately? There is one clear benefit of filing separately. By filing a separate return, the taxpayer is solely responsible for the accuracy and payment of tax related to that separate return. By contrast, on a jointly filed return, both spouses are jointly responsible for the accuracy of the return and the payment of tax. A spouse who is unwilling to assume legal and financial responsibility for the other spouse’s tax obligations should strongly consider filing separately.

The editors of JK Lasser’s Your Income Tax advise:

"If you suspect that your spouse is evading taxes and may be liable on a joint return, you may want to file a separate return. By filing separately, you avoid liability for unpaid taxes due on a joint return, plus penalties and interest."

In other words, on a separate return, the taxpayer will be responsible only for the accuracy of that tax return, if audited, and will be responsible for paying the tax on that return (or any additional tax that results from an audit).

Married but Filing Separately as Head of Household

Married taxpayers may be eligible to file using the Head of Household filing status if your spouse did not live with you during the last six months of the year and your home was the main home of your child for more than half the year. Here’s what the IRS has to say:

"You may be able to choose head of household filing status if you live apart from your spouse, meet certain tests, and are considered unmarried…. This can apply to you even if you are not divorced or legally separated. If you qualify to file as head of household, instead of as married filing separately, your tax may be lower, you may be able to claim the earned income credit and certain other credits, and your standard deduction will be higher. The head of household filing status allows you to choose the standard deduction even if your spouse chooses to itemize deductions." (From IRS Publication 501, "Married Filing Separately")

Reporting Community Property

Couples where one or both spouses reside in a community property state will need to follow special rules for allocating income and deductions. Community property is considered to be jointly owned by both spouses. Accordingly, each spouse generally reports half of the total community property income on his or her separate tax return. Similarly, community property deductions are split in half, with each spouse reporting half the deduction on their separate return.

Filing Jointly Requires Mutual Consent

Married couples who want to file jointly will need to both sign the jointly filed tax return. Sometimes, one spouse is unable or unwilling to sign the joint return. In that case, the spouses will need to file separately.

Time Frame for Deciding to File Jointly or Separately

Married couples can decide to file either jointly or separately when they file an original return for a particular year. Couples can change their mind and switch from two separate returns to a single joint return within three years from the due date of the original return (without extensions). However, couples can change their mind and switch from a joint return to two separate returns only by the April 15th deadline. To change your filing status, you will need to submit an amended tax return.

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Filing Status Information from the IRS

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