Depending on your financial situation and relationship with your spouse, married filing separately might be the best option for you at tax time. Filing separately offers some advantages for couples, but limits what credits you can claim on your tax return. Weigh the benefits and drawbacks of filing separately or jointly before you make a decision.
If either of you are in college or grad school, filing separately means you can't claim either the American Opportunity credit or the lifetime learning credit for tuition and fees you paid. Neither you or your spouse can claim an education credit if you file separately. Depending on your income, you might not be able to claim education credits even if you filed a joint return. If you earn more than $180,000 and file a joint return, you cannot claim the American Opportunity Credit, for example.
Dependent Care Credit
If you paid someone to look after a child under the age of 12 or an older person who cannot take care of herself, you can usually claim a credit for the cost of care, up to $6,000. Typically, you can claim the credit only if you and your spouse both work. The child and dependent care credit is completely off limits if you and your spouse file separate returns, however.
In one possible benefit of filing a separate return, you are not liable for your spouse's taxes and income. When you file a joint return, you both agree to be responsible for the contents of the return. That means if your spouse is dishonest about his income or deductions, you are technically dishonest too, even if you had no knowledge of his intent. Filing separately is one way to protect your finances if you have reason to worry that the IRS will come after your spouse.
Married filing separately status limits your deductions in some instances, but it also opens up other deductions. For example, you might be able to deduct medical expenses that are more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income if you file a separate return, but filing separately means that you must do as your spouse does. If he itemizes, you must also itemize. If he claims the standard deduction, you need to do that as well. Additionally, filing separately means you cannot deduct student loan interest or the cost of tuition from your income.
- IRS: Publication 970 - Tax Benefits for Education
- IRS: 10 Things to Know About the Child and Dependent Care Credit
- IRS: Publication 501 - Exemptions, Standard Deduction and Filing Information
- Fox Business: Married Filing Jointly or Separate - How to Decide
- Turbo Tax: Married Filing Jointly vs. Filing Separately
Based in Pennsylvania, Emily Weller has been writing professionally since 2007, when she began writing theater reviews Off-Off Broadway productions. Since then, she has written for TheNest, ModernMom and Rhode Island Home and Design magazine, among others. Weller attended CUNY/Brooklyn college and Temple University.