File Taxes Married Jointly or Separately – Which is Better?

Last Revised on February 7, 2012

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A lot of new couples might not know, but as a married couple you have a choice to file tax jointly or separately.  Even though you are not considered single anymore, you can both file your taxes individually which is also known as married filing separately. We will explore pros and cons of filing jointly vs separately, and how to file as “single” even when you are married. Which filing status is better for you will depend upon your individual circumstances, as you will see after reading the reasons why.

Married Filing Taxes Separately versus Jointly

How do you file a tax return married filing separately? To prepare a tax return for a person who is married but wants to file separately from spouse, you have to choose the option “married filing separately” or MFS on box 3 of page one of tax form that you will use, either 1040 or 1040A. Only thing that will be different in the form than that of those individuals who aren’t married is that you will have to write your spouse’s name and social security number.

Advantages of filing taxes jointly and drawbacks of filing separately: generally speaking, when you are married, you are better off filing jointly or MFJ; this one of the reasons people want to get married on legal paper. The tax benefits include lower overall tax bill because it makes you eligible for many tax breaks that aren’t available for singles. To be eligible for this type of tax return your status should have been declared married to your spouse at least by the last day of the year, and both decide to sign the return together. If the husband and wife have kids, they can claim dependents in their taxes very easily when filing jointly.

However, when a married couple file separately, they have to coordinate which dependents one of them can claim and usually it will be based on with whom the dependent children spent the most time. Your exemption amount will nearly be less than half of what is allowed for joint tax filers. The amount that you get to exclude from income under an employer’s dependent care assistance program is limited to $2500, which is $5000 if a joint return is filed. This much amount of money makes your tax return type worth carefully taking a look at.

Advantages of filing taxes separately and drawback of filing jointly: Married filing separately (MFS) helps one partner in the marriage owes a lot of money back in tax return while the other person can potentially get a huge tax refund. It is also helpful to file separately if your spouse has complicated taxes, possibly lying or cheating the IRS, that could potentially result tax return getting audited in few years and you don’t want to get involved. Therefore, the main benefit of married filing separate taxes is separate tax liabilities for the spouse and you.

Why file married filing separately type of tax return and not jointly? There are many people who are not together; they will have hard time figuring out what type of tax return to file. It is then best to get divorce finalized as soon as possible so they could take advantage of filing as a single person. Married filing separately is however a different as we explained above; you are still married but filing separate from your spouse. Here are some of the top reasons why married couples file taxes separately: one wants to file tax, while the other one doesn’t; one is self-employed and runs complicated business, other doesn’t want to get into the problems; one spouse owes tax bill, other expecting a tax refund check; the couple wants to be responsible for their own taxes, and you two are separated but not divorced yet.

Who qualifies for to file married filing separate tax returns? There are some qualification requirements that you need to satisfy if you are married but decide to file taxes separately from your spouse. This means you cannot take earned income credit nor can you take the education credits such as Hope, Lifetime learning and American opportunity credit and other student deductions like loan interest, tuition and fees. You will not be able to take credit for child and other dependent care expense in most cases. As a married but separate filer, your new home buyer credit will be $4,000, which is $8,000 if filed jointly with your spouse. However the  tax credits may get reduced to what you would get if you do a joint return filing.

Therefore, as you see, if you are filing tax return married jointly together with your spouse, you may get better refund than filing returns separately or individually even though it is allowed by IRS. Also, even if you use the married filing separate status, you must enter your spouse’s name and Social Security number at the top of your 1040 form. An important tax tip for someone who is just learning the basics: always submit your tax return by April 15 to avoid penalty fees and incurring interest if you owe IRS any money. If however you have to amend your taxes, you have until mid October to file the tax, that’s the final last day.

Due to any disagreements between you and your spouse if you can’t file a joint tax return, then instead of filing married filing separate, you also have the option to file as Head of Household if you pay for more than half of the cost of maintaining the house and pay for child expenses.

PS: you cannot file as “single” if you are married; you can either file a joint tax or have an option to do “married filing separately status.” Usually, the joint returns are better options for many families and even for individual families, since it give you higher refund and IRS charges lower taxes. What I don’t know, however, is if you have complicated situation where a couple has a child together but they don’t really live together but at the same time not divorced either. One spouse makes more money than the other but the child lives with both; my understanding was that both cannot claim  the child as their dependent if both husband and wife are filing taxes separately.

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132 Responses to “File Taxes Married Jointly or Separately – Which is Better?”

  1. how to file....debbie Says:
    April 14th, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    I have been separated for over 1 1/2 years and have had my daughter live with me in a apt, we are not legally separated, but in texas you do not file for separation, or so i am informed. I have lived in my home for the first 4 month then in an apt, living off what i make and supporting my daughter, and my son has lived with both me and my estrange spouse. I am needing to know if I should file separate, my spouse has paid for house taxes and has in larger income with extra income from stocks that he takes from it as he needs, and repays taxes on this at the end of the year. I am concerned on how to file and would it save me or hinder me to file separately, as he usually has to pay each year on taxes. I make around 40,000, he makes about 65+. Would i be able to claim one child as a dependent? I am now in my home and responsible for all debts, taxes for this year, but was just partially in the home alone from 11-2010 to 3-2011, with both children and no child support but we filed jointly, probably should of filed separate then. Please let me know how is best, asap as the deadline is soon and he wants to file jointly…thanks

    I am by no means a tax expert, and especially your case is bit complicated for me as you didn’t really live at the house for more than half of the financial year and not legally separated yet. However, as you said you had your daughter throughout that year (and son too) living with you, filing separate sounds tempting to me since you didn’t receive child support from ex husband either.

  2. Technoqueen, wife retired, husband still working Says:
    April 15th, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    For 2011, I retired in June and started getting a teacher pension, and then in Sept. started getting SS. My husband is still working. When I figured my taxes first, with our deductions, I was due about $3,000, but when I added his income, we now owe about $4,000. It seems we might be better off filing separately. If you file separately, how do you split the deductions for real estate taxes, interest, etc. ? Thanks for any help you can provide.

  3. confused Says:
    September 11th, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    I have been living with my fiancee for 3 years. I have two children from a previous marriage (17, 19) and my fiancee has a 15 year old daughter. One of my sons lives on campus and the younger lives with his mother.

    My fiancee, her daughter and I live in my house (title in my name) and we file taxes separately. I have been self-employed or ‘underemployed’ for a year and just got a new job. Our combined gross incomes will be about $100k for 2012 and about $183k ($115k for me and hers $68k projected) for 2013. Is it better to get married and file jointly or separately?

    Thanks

  4. anika Says:
    September 24th, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    My Husband and I got married just in April; however 2 yrs. ago (when we weren’t married) he filed as “married” unknown to me until the IRS took some of my return for that year b/c I of course being honest filed “unmarried/single”.
    Also; he has been unemployed for 99% of 2012 w/some unemployment checks – he also hasn’t filed taxes prior to the year (or multiple years I’m not sure) he incorrectly stated we were married, so I would assume he owes taxes.
    What I’m getting at is should I file “separtely” for 2012? Or Married? Sad to say my income is only going to be about $19-$21K for the year – (we have one child as well); which way would we get more money back? I really don’t want to be involved with having his back taxes taken out of my return or be intertwined with his issues either. Thanks in advance for any advice and/or suggestions. 🙂

  5. SUSAN Says:
    November 7th, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    Hi my husband has his own business this year
    well from march, so how do we file as a married couple . i have my own taxes to
    and can claim an education amount for my
    son who is at university
    we live in canada .alberta
    thanks

  6. need to know Says:
    February 1st, 2013 at 9:16 pm

    how can i confirm if my tax expert truely use my two kids as my dependent for my filing

  7. seyi isola Says:
    February 1st, 2013 at 9:23 pm

    how can i confirm or know or confirm if my tax prepareer or expert or professional truely
    use my two kids as my dependent for my
    filing.

  8. need direction Says:
    July 16th, 2013 at 10:06 am

    I’ve been filing single, but I am married. I would like to change statist to married filing separate. What can I do to correct this and will I have to pay back taxes from previous years?

  9. not a real tax expert Says:
    July 16th, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    I don’t think it matters if you are talking about filing with a different status for a different tax season. However, if you are talking about amending the past tax files, then know that married 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 tax return, without extensions. But if they want to switch from a joint return to two separate returns for each couple, then they should do so by the April 15th deadline promptly.

  10. Jennifer Says:
    April 1st, 2014 at 2:30 pm

    My husband and I were married in Sept of 2013. He went a filed his taxes as married filing seperate. We then found out that we should have filed a joint return. Do I need to file my own seperate taxes and then have both ammended? Or, can I simply file a 1040X to include my information with his?

  11. separated Says:
    March 27th, 2016 at 12:22 am

    My husband and I did not live together at all this year. We are separated not legally. We didnt share any expenses we had separate bank accounts. How should I claim my taxes? I received medical and food stamps for my daughters and I as well, and he is not the father of any of my daughters. He agreed to file married filing jointly. Is this legal?

  12. JMG Says:
    April 6th, 2016 at 3:55 pm

    I’m filing my 2016 2017 income tax returns
    I was married in those years but divorced now and my X husband is in prison now and I need to get these returns filed
    How do I file the returns if he is in prison and can’t sign the returns

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