I’m Married, What Filing Status Should I Choose?

By TaxAct

Your wedding day is one of the most exciting and memorable days of your life. It makes all the hectic planning leading up to the big day well worth it.

But as you walk down the aisle to say “I do”, you probably aren’t thinking about your income taxes. Yet, your new tax situation is quite possibly one of the biggest items to tackle as a newly married couple.

Here’s what you and your new spouse need to know. 

Your income tax filing options

Your legal marital status on the last day of the tax year dictates your marital status for the entire year for income tax purposes.

That means if you are legally married on Dec. 31, 2018, you are regarded as married for the entire 2018 tax year. That’s true even if you just united in marriage on Dec. 29.

In that instance, you have three filing statuses to choose from:

  • Married Filing Jointly
  • Married Filing Separate
  • Married Filing Joint on the Federal tax return & Married Filing Separate on the State return

Married filing jointly advantages

Many tax advantages exist for couples who elect to file joint returns. In most cases, joint filers have a lower tax liability compared to a couple who files separately. They also can take advantage of higher income thresholds for specific deductions and credits. That means you can earn more income and still take advantage of those tax breaks.

Additionally, joint filers qualify for several tax benefits that might not otherwise be available, such as:

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Education credits, like the American Opportunity Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Education deductions for student loan interest and the cost of tuition and fees
  • Exclusion or credit for expenses related to adoption
  • Child and dependent care tax credit
  • Credits for the elderly or the disabled

Married filing jointly disadvantages

Married filing jointly means each spouse is liable for income tax obligations, including the complete income tax bill, any interest, and potential penalties.

However, there are three types of relief from joint responsibility available:

  1. Innocent spouse relief allows a husband or wife to request absolution from paying extra taxes if their spouse improperly reported or completely withheld items on the tax return.
  2. Separation of liability grants separate tax liabilities to spouses who are legally separated if one of the spouses improperly reported items on a tax return. In that case, the other spouse is only liable for the amount of tax allocated to him or her.
  3. Equitable relief is sometimes granted in the event an item isn’t reported properly on a joint return and the spouses don’t qualify for innocent spouse relief or separation of liability. Individuals can also qualify for the relief if the tax on a joint return wasn’t paid.

Married filing separate advantages

There are some situations where choosing to file a separate return from your spouse makes sense. For example, let’s say your combined adjusted gross income (AGI) is high and one of you has a lot of medical costs to claim. The IRS only allows you to claim the cost of medical care that exceeds 7.5 percent of your AGI in 2018. If you have a high AGI, it can be tough to get over that amount. In that case, it might be more advantageous to file a separate return.

And in 2019, it gets even harder. You can only deduct expenses that exceed 10 percent of your AGI.

Married filing separate disadvantages

Filing separately from your spouse comes with a variety of tax consequences. You likely won’t have access to as many tax benefits, and you may be subject to a higher tax rate as individual filers. Plus, the standard deduction is much lower when filing separately.

Separate filers cannot take advantage of the student loan interest deduction. They are limited on how much they can contribute to an IRA and are only eligible to deduct $1,500 in capital losses versus $3,000 as joint filers.

As a separate filer, you’re also tied to how your spouse handles his or her deductions. If they itemize deductions on their return, you must do the same. You cannot claim the standard deduction.

If you initially choose to file separately but later decide that wasn’t the right choice, you can amend your return and change the filing status to married filing jointly. If you choose to file a joint return, however, you cannot amend to change your filing status after the tax return due date.

Possible state implications

The filing requirements for each state vary. Check with your state to see if they require you to use the same filing status on your state return as you use on your federal return.

A quick way to determine which filing status benefits you the most is to open a TaxAct account and enter your information. The product will walk you through step-by-step instructions to highlight which scenario gives you the most tax savings.

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