When you sit down to figure your taxes, the first thing you’ll have to decide is your filing status. Legally, your marital status on Dec. 31 of the tax year determines your marital status for the entire year. According to the IRS, if you’re single, you are required by law to file as a single person. The same holds true if you’re married. With the married filing status, however, you have two options from which to choose. When you have decided your filing status, your next decision will focus on which option creates the least tax liability.
Married Filing Jointly
Filing jointly as a married couple is generally the filing status you’ll use to create the lowest tax obligation. If you have children, one of the major advantages to filing a joint return is the earned income credit. The credit is substantial and can give you a refund even if you did not pay and/or do not owe any tax. This credit is also available if you have no children and a minimal adjusted gross income. Additionally, qualifying widows or widowers can file as married filing jointly.
Married Filing Separately
Some couples find filing separate returns advantageous, especially if one person has a refund coming and the other owes a bunch of cash to the IRS. This generally happens when there’s a great disparity between incomes. Keep in mind that if you both sign the income tax return, as you do with the married filing jointly status, you are both liable for the return’s content. Consequently, if you suspect your spouse is being less than truthful with his numbers, married filing separately is your best bet.
Head of Household
While the head of household filing status generally applies to single taxpayers, it can apply to you if you are a married person who is legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree and if you paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home for yourself and one other qualifying person during the tax year. A qualifying person is a son, daughter or grandchild who is single and lived with you more than half the year or is married, lived with you for more than half the year, and you can claim an exemption for him or her. A parent for whom you can claim an exemption is also a qualifying person if they lived with you for more than half the year. A parent is also designated as a qualifying person if you can claim them as an exemption and they lived apart from you, but you paid for more than half their living expenses, even if they resided in a rest home or home for the elderly. The standard deduction for this filing status is significantly more than single and married filing separately and the overall tax rate is lower.
Remember, if you’re married, you have to file as such. If you file as single and the IRS gets wind of it, you could face federal criminal charges. The only legal option for you as a married person to submit a tax return using the single filing status is if you are legally separated under a divorce or separate maintenance decree according to the laws in your state of residence.
If the “marriage penalty” is keeping you from getting hitched because you’ll have to file as a married person, think again. The “marriage penalty” is no longer an excuse to stay single because it was effectively eliminated in 2004. Before lawmakers changed the tax code, tax brackets where structured in such a way as to favor single people or unmarried couples who lived together without the benefit of marriage. Even the standard deduction was higher for single people. Today, the standard deduction for a married couple is exactly twice that of a single person, and the married-filing-jointly tax bracket is set up to coincide with that of a single person, thus eliminating any so-called “marriage penalty” tax.
Cheryl Withrow is a writer in Michigan’s untamed Upper Peninsula. Following a teaching career she served alternately as editor of the "Washington County News" and the "Geneva County Reaper," and as associate editor of "Bay Life" magazine. Withrow holds a Bachelor of Science in business with a major in accountancy from Wright State University and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Ohio University.