Once you say “I do,” many things in life change, and that includes how you file your income taxes. If you’re married, you do not necessarily have to file as married filing jointly, but married filing single is generally not an option.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
If you are married, you must either file jointly with your spouse or file as married filing separately.
December 31 is a Critical Day
The IRS or your state considers your marital status on December 31 of a particular tax year. If you are not married on December 31 but wed on New Year’s Day, you are not married for the previous year and must file separate tax returns as singles. Going forward, you are married for the next tax year. If you marry on December 31, you are considered married for that entire year for tax purposes. If you are married on December 31, you must file taxes either jointly or separately but not as a single person. Most couples choose to file jointly, but some may want to file separately because one spouse has past due debt, such as student loans or child support. Filling out Form 8379, the Injured Spouse Allocation, has nothing to do with domestic violence or any physical issue. Instead, it is a way that married couples can file jointly and, if a refund is due, the spouse who did not have a legally enforceable past due debt, such as child support, receives a portion of the refund rather than having the entire amount go toward debt payment. The IRS determines how much of the refund goes toward debt payment and how much goes to the injured spouse.
Divorce and Separation
When it comes to divorce and separation, the IRS will go along with state law. Some states consider a couple married for tax purposes until a divorce is finalized, not when the couple separates. If you are separated on December 31 but don’t have a separation maintenance agreement in force by that date, the IRS considers you married. If you do have a divorce agreement or separation maintenance agreement in place, you may file as either single or as head of household. You may file as the latter if you have a child or other dependent living with you, and you pay at least half of the expenses to keep a home. The IRS does make one exception: “If you and your spouse obtain a divorce in one year for the sole purpose of filing tax returns as unmarried individuals, and at the time of divorce you intend to remarry each other and do so in the next tax year, you and your spouse must file as married individuals.”
If you dwell in a community property state, it makes little sense to file separately, as what is considered marital property and each spouse’s income is complicated. A community property state’s rules, which differ according to the individual state, may cause a couple’s combined income to be split equally between both of their returns, so there is no reason to file separately. Community property states are Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.
Married Filing Separately Rules 2018
While you can’t be married but filing single, you can file taxes as married and filing separately. There aren’t many benefits of married filing separately. In fact, you lose deductions you could otherwise take if you filed jointly with your spouse. For example, when married filing separately, you can’t deduct student loan interest, take the earned income tax credit or exclude interest income from qualified U.S. savings bonds used to pay your higher education expenses. Those are just a few possible deductions you could lose. Others include the child tax care credit and traditional IRA deductions.
When you file taxes as married filing separately, you must coordinate with your spouse. If one itemizes, so must the other. As of 2018, the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly has risen to $24,000, so fewer people will itemize. However, if you file separately, the standard deduction is exactly half at $12,000. Since the deduction for state and local property taxes is now capped at $10,000, those who are married and filing separately cannot deduct more than $5,000. Personal exemptions no longer exist under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, signed into law by President Trump on December 22, 2017.
Married Filing Separately Rules 2017
The rules for married filing separately in 2017 are similar to those in 2018, with a few exceptions concerning deductions. The standard deduction for someone married filing separately in 2017 is $6,500. There was no limit on the state and local taxes deduction in 2017, so each spouse could deduct half of that amount.
- IRS: Publication 501 (2017), Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information
- Forbes: Ask the Taxgirl: Filing Single When You're Married
- Investopedia: Newlyweds? Tips for Filing Your Tax Return
- IRS: Publication 504 (2017), Divorced or Separated Individuals
- Nolo: Should Married People File Jointly or Separately?
- MarketWatch: How the New Tax Law Affects Homeowners – It Could Be More Than You Think
A graduate of New York University, Jane Meggitt's work has appeared in dozens of publications, including PocketSense, Zack's, Financial Advisor, nj.com, LegalZoom and The Nest.