When Married Filing Separately Will Save You Taxes
If you're married, there are circumstances where filing separately can save you money on your income taxes.
- Filing jointly or separately
- Filing separately with similar incomes
- Using miscellaneous deductions by filing separately (for tax years prior to 2018)
• When both spouses work and earn about the same amount, filing a joint return might put a couple into a higher tax bracket, while filing separately results in a lower tax rate.
• If one spouse’s out-of-pocket medical expenses exceed 7.5% of their individual adjusted gross income (AGI), but don’t exceed 7.5% of their joint AGI, they might be able to lower their taxes by filing separately and taking the medical deduction.
• When a couple’s AGI is too high to qualify for casualty losses in a federally declared disaster area, filing separately may make it possible for one spouse to claim the deduction and lower the couple’s overall tax bill.
• If one spouse has a large tax bill and the other is due a tax refund, filing separately will protect the refund. The IRS won't apply it to the other spouse's balance due.
Filing jointly or separately
The IRS considers taxpayers married if they are legally married under state law, live together in a state-recognized common-law marriage, or are separated but have no separation maintenance or final divorce decree as of the end of the tax year.
Of the 150.3 million tax returns filed in 2016, the latest year for which the IRS has published statistics (at the time of writing), 3.07 million belonged to twosomes who filed separately.
- These partners reported individual income and expenses on separate tax returns.
- They had to agree on either both itemizing expenses or both using the standard deduction.
- If they had similar incomes, filing separately and using their various deductions or medical expenses likely helped them save taxes.
Filing separately with similar incomes
A couple may pay the IRS less by filing separately when both spouses work and earn about the same amount.
- When they compare the tax due amount under both joint and separate filing statuses, they may discover that combining their earnings puts them into a higher tax bracket.
- Their savings depends on a variety of other factors, however, including their investment situation and whether they have children.
- The "married filing separately" status reduces the deduction for IRA contributions and eliminates certain tax credits, among other tax breaks.
Using miscellaneous deductions by filing separately (for tax years prior to 2018)
- Spouses with union dues, job-search costs, tax-preparation fees and un-reimbursed business expenses may find their miscellaneous deductions don't qualify when their higher combined income raises their AGI.
- A spouse who travel frequently for business could rack up a sizable tally in airline fees for baggage and itinerary changes that makes the miscellaneous deduction worth pursuing.
Beginning in 2018, these types of miscellaneous expenses are no longer deductible.
Filing separately to save with unforeseen expenses
- Unless out-of-pocket medical expenses exceed 7.5% of AGI, they don't qualify as a deduction.
- Casualty losses must also total more than 10% of AGI and occur in a federally declared disaster area.
The spouse with the loss or substantial medical outlay calculates deductibility against his or her own lower AGI when the couple files separate returns. When one spouse can lower taxable income this way, married filing separately might trim a couple's overall tax burden.
Filing separately to guard the future
When you don't want to be liable for your partner's tax bill, choosing the married-filing-separately status offers financial protection: the IRS won't apply your refund to your spouse's balance due. Separate returns make sense to prevent the IRS from seizing a spouse's tax refund when the other has fallen behind on child support payments.
Couples in the process of divorcing may shun joint returns to avoid post-divorce complications with the IRS, while a spouse who questions her partner's tax ethics may feel more comfortable living a separate tax life.
Couples living in community-property states should consider state law when deciding how to file.
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