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Married Filing Jointly & Married Filing Separately (Filing Status)

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This is part two of our filing status series (it’s really just two articles) and in this part we’ll take a look at the two married filing statuses – married filing jointly and married filing separately. As we mentioned earlier today, you filing status as of December 31st will basically determine which filing statuses you’ll be able to choose from. If you’re married, and not “considered unmarried,” your two options will be to file as Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately.

I documented the key differences between married filing separately and married filing jointly in the past, based on 2008 tax brackets data, but the same analysis holds true with the updated IRS tax rates.

Tax Brackets

Here is a comparison of the tax brackets for both. Remember that when you file jointly, two individuals are reflected on a single tax return. If you file separately, there are two returns, one of each spouse. This is why the Married Filing Separately tax brackets will look more like Single and HoH brackets (in reality, it’s actually much lower once you enter the 25% marginal rate):

Tax Bracket Married Filing Jointly Married Filing Separately
10% Bracket $0 – $17,000 $0 – $8,500
15% Bracket $17,000 – $69,000 $8,500 – $34,500
25% Bracket $69,000 – $139,350 $34,500 – $69,675
28% Bracket $139,350 – $212,300 $69,675 – $106,150
33% Bracket $212,300 – $379,150 $106,150 – $189,575
35% Bracket $379,150+ $189,575+

The standard deduction for Married Filing Jointly is $11,600 and the standard deduction for married filing separately is $5,800, the same as single filers.

Married Filing Jointly

Whereas the rules for Head of Household and Single filing are pretty specific, you really have the option when it comes to preparing your returns when you’re married. You can choose either Jointly or Separately and the rules aren’t very stringent when it comes to limiting which one you can choose. The main consideration, once you get beyond the tax brackets and various credits and deductions, is that both spouses are liable for what is claimed on the tax return. You may be able to escape liability through “innocent spouse relief,” but in general both spouses are responsible even if one didn’t earn a penny that year.

Married Filing Separately

If you don’t want the liability and the numbers seem to argue for filing separately, be aware that many credits, deductions, and contribution limits are lowered drastically when you file separately. For example, the Roth IRA income phaseout for someone filing separately is $0 – $10,000 (compared to $105,000 – $121,000 for a single filer in 2010). As married filing separately, you don’t get the student loan interest deduction, earned income credit, child and dependent care credits, and a number of other deductions and credits. Finally, if your spouse is claiming the standard deduction, you also have to claim the standard (likewise if the spouse claims itemized deductions). The deduction “type” has to match.

While there are certainly other rules involved in properly preparing your returns, it’s pretty obvious that the IRS frowns on the Married Filing Separately category.

I hope we’ve done a good job of covering the broad differences between the four filing categories (Single, Head of Household, Married Filing Jointly, Married Filing Separately) in preparation for tax season. If there is anything we missed or anything you want to see covered in greater detail, let us know in the comments!

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13 Responses to “Married Filing Jointly & Married Filing Separately (Filing Status)”

  1. MikeZ says:

    Once again showing why getting your marriage recognized by the state is for chumps, unless your S.O. make significant income:

    25% Bracket Cap for married families: $139,350 (same for joint or separate)

    For unmarried no kids: $167200
    For unmarried w/ 1+ kids: $203,300 (a child gets you the head of household)

  2. Guy In San Antonio says:

    BIG ITEM TO NOTE IF YOU LIVE IN A COMMUNITY PROPERTY STATE!
    I live in Texas, which is a community property state. If my spouse and I file “Married Filing Separately”, i am required to claim half of her W2 and she is required to claim 1/2 of mine. This often eliminates any advantage to filing this way.

  3. zapeta says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll have to figure out what makes sense for my household in 2011 but will probably file jointly.

  4. Strebkr says:

    I’ve never looked too closely, but from what I remember in school, Married filing separately is a HUGE disadvantage. Some deductions are completely closed off because of it, regardless of your income levels.

  5. Chuck says:

    “It’s pretty obvious that the IRS frowns on the Married Filing Separately category.”

    Remember that the IRS just implements the tax code that is created by Congress. The IRS doesn’t care what you do, unless you’re cheating.

  6. cathie says:

    i live in texas and have been trying to do my married filing sep taxes on line. each site i go to says i have to include his income to e-file and that we have to file the same way (standard or itemized). problem is he won’t tell me anything! what can I do???

    • Anonymous says:

      ? if wife being the homemaker& husband works & they file jointly.is wife entilted to half of the taxes?

  7. Crystal says:

    I live in South Carolina, and my husband and I are in a common-law marriage recognized by the state of South Carolina. We have been told by several people that it would be best to file married jointly, but I just want to be sure we will file in such a way that will give us the best possible refund. He works full-time and I am a full-time student. The only income I had for 2010 was from my scholarship and Pell Grant to go to school. I did not work at all in 2010. We also have a little girl to claim as a dependent. What should we do?

  8. Shannon says:

    I have a 19year old daughter who has attending a community college the past 2years and now wants to transfer in to a 4 year University. I have been married for 8months. My husband came in to my life when my daughter was 18. He is not the biological father and has not raised her financially. My daughter works part time and goes to school full time. I have been a single parent after divorcing her father until 2 years ago. My husband and I filed our taxes together and now based on our combined income she is not eligble for a financial aid package that would allow her to attend. My husband does not have any children of his own and therefore never saved for a college tution. I have been a single parent with no assistance from my ex husband and therefore was not able to save for college tution. My daughter deserves this and will be the first to attend a college in our family. By filing seperately would FASFA have based the financial aid award just on my income alone or not?

  9. Karl says:

    Regarding Community Property – there CAN be a significant advantage to filing separately in cases involving property acquired before the marriage. For example, if you have rental property that you had before getting married.

  10. Anonymous says:

    I am seperated from my wife and have no idea how she may file. Is there special rules for these circumstances?


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