Many newlyweds find that planning a wedding was the easy part of getting married compared to figuring out their new tax situation. If you've been married less than a year, your initial tax filing may feel a little daunting. But learning about all your options should make you feel calmer.
For federal tax purposes, you’re considered married for the entire year if you were married on the last day of the year you're filing for. Married individuals can file joint tax returns with their spouses or use a "married filing separately" status. They cannot use a filing status of single unless they are legally separated on the last day of the year. Some states do not have legal separation agreements. Couples without formal marriage licenses may qualify as legally married under the common law marriage statues in their states. Claiming a common law marriage for federal income tax is the same as a licensed marriage.
Married Filing Jointly
When you’re married on the last day of the year and file a joint tax return, report all the income of both you and your spouse for entire year – even the income received during the period you were single. Each of you is responsible for the entire tax on a joint return, not just the part of tax associated with your income. After filing a joint return, you cannot amend your tax return after the filing deadline by switching to separate returns for that year. The tax rates for married filing jointly are lower than the rates for married filing separately.
Married Filing Separately
When you’re married and don’t file jointly despite living with your spouse at year-end, your status is married filing separately. Using this status makes you responsible only for the tax on your income. Higher tax rates typically make married filing separately a financial disadvantage. You also cannot claim tax credits for higher education costs, credit for child- and dependent-care expenses, an adoption credit, or the earned income tax credit. You can claim your spouse as a dependent if he had no income and was not a dependent of anyone else. If your spouse has income, he must also file separately.
If you and your spouse cannot agree on filing jointly, you’re stuck with "married filing separately" filing. If you both claim the standard deduction, each of you uses half of the amount allowed for a joint return. A potential problem occurs when your spouse wants to file separately and has more itemized deductions than the standard deduction. If he itemizes deductions when filing separately, you must also itemize. If you have fewer itemized deductions than the standard deduction, you don’t have much to deduct and could end up owing tax when you file.
Brian Huber has been a writer since 1981, primarily composing literature for businesses that convey information to customers, shareholders and lenders. Huber has written about various financial, accounting and tax matters and his published articles have appeared on various websites. He has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from the University of Texas at Austin.