Throughout the tax season I will be answering one tax question per day.
Today's question comes from H. Hester in Georgia. She asks, "If you are married, can you file your taxes separately?"
Yes, married couples can file their tax returns separately from each other. You do this by choosing the "married filing separately" filing status on Form 1040 (box 3 on page one of Form 1040). Each spouse will file his and her own Form 1040. Each will also report the other spouse's Social Security Number at the top of the form, and will write-in the spouse's name in the area next to box 3.
There are some very good reasons for wanting to file separately. I detail those reasons in my article on Choosing Your Filing Status.
In general, married couples will have a lower overall tax bill if they file a joint return. Also, couples filing separately will lose out on a number of important tax breaks. Nonetheless, filing separate returns makes the most sense when one spouse owes a significant amount of money, but the other spouse could get a refund. It also makes sense when one spouse is cheating on their taxes, and the other spouse doesn't want to be involved.
Filing separate returns requires a great deal of cooperation and sharing. Both spouses must itemize or take the standard deduction. (They cannot split their tax strategies by one person itemizing and the other taking the standard deduction.) Also, there may be significant state tax issues if the couple lives in a community property state. If one or both spouses lives tn those nine states, then the spouses will split their income using community property rules. They will also split their deductions for community property as well.
I have seen separate tax returns come out about the same as a joint return. When that happens, I recommend filing separately, since that will preserve the separate responsibilities for payment of tax and audit risk. However, in most cases filing jointly will usually produce a noticeably lower tax impact, but filing jointly also comes with joint responsibility for the accuracy of the return and the payment of taxes.
Because of these complexities, couples may want to seek out a tax professional to make sure all the returns are accurately prepared.
Do you have a question? Visit the Ask a Tax Question page.