Many times each year, clients ask us if they should file separately from their spouses to pay less in income taxes.  To define this issue a bit, married couples can file their tax returns using one of two statuses:

  1. Married filing jointly or
  2. Married filing separately.

A joint filing combines all of the income and deductions from each spouse into one tax return.  To file separately, a married couple splits income and deductions between them.  That doesn’t mean they just divide everything by two.  They determine income and deductions for each person and file separate tax returns.

After 31 years  as certified public accountants, we have found that filing separately works out about two percent of the time.  The reason is simple:  the tax code was set up to discourage separate filing.  The tax tables impose a significant penalty for filing separately.  Therefore, in almost all cases, married couples achieve a better result filing jointly.

When can filing separately work?

Typically filing separately works better when there are significant differences in income and deductions between the spouses.

Medical expenses can drive this decision.  When couples file jointly, medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of their combined adjusted gross income before receiving any deduction for medical expenses on Schedule A.

If one spouse has significantly lower income and significantly higher medical expenses in a year, filing separately is preferable, because the 7.5% threshold for medical expenses is easier to reach for the lower income spouse.

When we prepare tax returns for a married couple, we typically complete a worksheet that tells us if filing separately is a good possibility.  If the results are close, we then look at better allocating deductions to see if we can make it work.  In most cases, filing jointly is a better bet.

There can be reasons not to file jointly even if the net tax liability is lower.  A pending divorce may  trigger one spouse to file separately – and here’s why.

On a joint tax return, both spouses are equally responsible for any tax liability.  With a divorce pending, one spouse may elect to file separately so as not to accept liability for income taxes generated by the other spouse.  Additionally, one spouse may not trust the other to honestly report income and deductions.  On a joint return, under audit, both spouses are still liable even if only one of them misstated the tax liability.

If one spouse elects to file separately, the other must file separately as well.  In addition, if the first spouse to file a return itemizes deductions, the other must itemize as well.

In a pending divorce situation, the couple must jointly decide how to split income and deductions between them.  Obviously, this leaves lots of room for conflict that the attorneys must sort out.

As you can see, the decision to file jointly or separately can be difficult for many couples.  Let Stitely and Karstetter help you make that decision.