What Happens If You File Separate Federal Tax Returns When Married?

Some couples prefer to file taxes separately.

Some couples prefer to file taxes separately.

Being married doesn’t mean you have to do everything together, and that includes filing your taxes. As a married couple, you have the option of choose a filing status of married filing jointly or married filing separately. Like everything else involving the IRS, you have to follow certain rules, but filing separately can work to your advantage in some situations. The IRS suggests couples figure their taxes both jointly and separately to determine which method results in the lowest taxes for them.

Rules for Filing

When you file separately, you each report your own income and take your own deductions and credits. If one of you itemizes, you both have to itemize, even if this means one spouse’s itemized deductions add up to less than the standard deduction she might have otherwise taken. When you itemize, you can each take half of deductions such as mortgage interest. You each assume responsibility only for what you report on your own return.


When you file separately, in most cases you will end up paying more taxes than if you’d filed a joint return. This is because your tax rate is usually higher, and you’re not entitled to certain tax credits that are available to couples who file joint returns. Filing separately, you can’t take the tax credit for child and dependent care, or the earned income credit. You can’t take adoption or education tax credits and you can’t exclude savings bond interest you used to pay for education. You can take only half the credit for retirement contributions that you’d be entitled to filing jointly.


If one spouse has a large amount of medical expense deductions, filing separately may allow him to take these deductions, since medical expense deductions are limited to amounts in excess of 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income. A spouse with a large amount of miscellaneous expenses, which are limited to amounts greater than 2 percent of adjusted gross income, might also benefit from filing separately. Filing separately allows you to be responsible only for your own income and deductions – a concern if you suspect your spouse is cheating on her taxes. On a joint return that you both sign, you’re responsible for everything on the return and could be subject to penalties and even criminal charges for cheating.

Special Considerations

Couples who want to keep their financial concerns strictly separate may choose to file separately. Separated couples may file separately, and couples who can’t agree on a joint return must file separately. If you’re separated or divorced on the last day of the year, your spouse hasn’t lived in your home for six months, and a dependent, such as a child or dependent parent, lives with you, you may qualify to file as head of household. You must have contributed more than half the support to your household during the year. This filing status entitles you to bigger tax exemptions and credits, which could result in your paying lower taxes.


About the Author

Cynthia Myers is the author of numerous novels and her nonfiction work has appeared in publications ranging from "Historic Traveler" to "Texas Highways" to "Medical Practice Management." She has a degree in economics from Sam Houston State University.

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