Getting married brings about many life changes. For some, it brings a new name, a new house or a new baby. But, for all married couples, one thing is a given – a new tax filing status. The Internal Revenue Service allows couples to choose a "married filing separate" or "married filing joint" status, depending on the wedding date. In most instances, your state tax return uses the same filing status you claim on your federal return. If you file a separate return and later decide you want to file a joint return, you can amend your return and switch. However, once you file a joint return, you can’t amend it later to file separately.
Check your marriage date against IRS rules for married couples. If you were married on or before the last day of the tax year, you’re considered married for the entire year for tax purposes. However, if you married after the last day of the tax year but before the due date for the return you’re working on, you’ll need to choose an unmarried filing status, such as "single" or "head of household."
Review tax credits and deductions you’re eligible to claim as a married couple. If you’re required to file a married return, you’ll use this information to help you choose a separate or joint filing status. Some credits are reduced or disallowed for couples who file a separate return. These include most credits you’d receive for claiming a dependent child, the earned income credit, education credits and the retirement savings credit. If you plan on claiming these credits, filing a joint return may yield better tax results.
Calculate your tax result under the "married filing separate" status. Prepare a mock return for each of you under this status. Separate your income and allocate return items to the person who is individually required to report them. If you have joint-itemized deductions, you can select one spouse to claim all itemized deductions, or split them. If one spouse itemizes all deductions, the other spouse may not claim the standard deduction for the "married filing separate" status.
Calculate your tax result under the "married filing joint" status. When you prepare this mock return, you’ll combine all your income, credits and deductions.
Compare mock return results. Look at the tax due or refund for each separate return and combine the amounts. Compare this to the balance due or refund from your joint return and decide which filing method is best for your situation. Tax rates for joint filers are often lower, but in some cases, combing your income may place you in a higher tax bracket, resulting in a higher overall tax bill. While "married filing separate" tax rates are higher than joint rates, in some instances it may still be beneficial to file separately, such as when one spouse is liable for certain types of debt that the other spouse doesn’t want to be connected to (like back tax debt).
- Same-sex married couples may be able to file a joint Registered Domestic Partner state income tax return, depending on state laws. However, the IRS has not yet recognized same-sex unions, so you'll still need to file as single on your federal return. This is a relatively new, complex area of tax law, so check with a local tax professional for details.