Being Married and Filing Taxes

The Pros and Cons of Filing a Joint Married Return

Closeup of bridegroom's and bride's hands putting on rings
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The IRS doesn't require that married couples must file joint income tax returns simply because they've tied the knot. Spouses have the option of filing separate married returns and some do, for a variety of reasons. Filing jointly usually provides more in the way of tax relief, however. You'll be entitled to a larger standard deduction if you file jointly with your spouse, and the tax brackets for this status are more generous, so the choice bears some thought.

Experts recommend preparing your taxes both ways to determine which option makes the most financial sense for you if you're unsure what's best for your personal situation.

Rules for Filing a Joint Return

You and your spouse are eligible to file a joint tax return if you're considered legally married. This means that you're married on Dec. 31, the last day of the tax year. You can file a joint 2019 return in April 2020 if you were legally married on Dec. 31, 2019.

"Legally married" is the catch phrase here, and it's open to some interpretation. According to the IRS and tax law, you're married if you don't have a divorce decree or judgment entered by the court on or before that date—even if you've filed for divorce earlier in the year.

You can't be legally separated by court order, either, although it's not mandatory that you and your spouse actually live together. You can live apart as long as a court hasn't issued an order governing the terms of your separation.

A separation agreement entered into between you is considered a contract, not a court order. You can still file jointly if you've entered into a separation agreement.

Both you and your spouse must also agree to file the joint return and you must both sign it.

Married Filing Jointly Impacts Your Tax Rate 

A taxpayer's filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which schedule of tax rates are used. The tax brackets for 2019 are applicable to the return you'll file in 2020:

Rate Income Bracket
10% $0 to $19,400
12% $19,401 to $78,950
22% $78,951 to $168,400
24% $168,401 to $321,450
32% $321,451 to $408,200
35% $408,201 to $612,350
37% $612,351 or more 

The spans of income covered by each tax bracket are indexed for inflation, so they increase somewhat in the 2020 tax year. These figures apply to the return you'll file in 2021 for the 2020 calendar year.

Rate Income Bracket
10% $0 to $19,750
12% $19,751 to $80,250
22% $80,251 to $171,050
24% $171,051 to $326,600
32% $326,601 to $414,700
35% $414,701 to $622,050
37% $622,051 or more

These are progressive or "marginal" tax rates. A higher percentage doesn't kick in until your income reaches that particular threshold, and then only your income over that threshold is taxed at that percentage. For example, the first $19,750 would be taxed at 10% and only one extra dollar would be taxed at 12% if you and your spouse earn $19,751 in 2020.

How Married Filing Jointly Affects the Standard Deduction

Taxpayers have a choice between itemizing their deductions or claiming the standard deduction, but they can't do both. The standard deduction for the married filing jointly status is the largest available. As of tax year 2019, the return you'll file in 2020, the standard deductions are:

  • $24,400 for married taxpayers filing jointly
  • $24,400 for qualifying widow(ers)
  • $18,350 for heads of household
  • $12,200 for married taxpayers filing separate returns
  • $12,200 for single taxpayers

These figures are also indexed for inflation, so they increase in tax year 2020, the return you'll file in 2021:

  • $24,800 for married taxpayers filing jointly
  • $24,800 for qualifying widow(er)s
  • $18,650 for heads of household
  • $12,400 for married taxpayers filing separate returns
  • $12,400 for single taxpayers

The Risks of Filing a Joint Married Return

It might seem like a no-brainer to choose the married filing jointly status, but it comes with some drawbacks. Both spouses must report all their incomes, deductions, and credits on the same return when they file jointly. Both accept full responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of that information. The IRS refers to this as being "jointly and severally liable."

Each spouse is responsible for providing documentation to prove the accuracy of the tax return if it's audited by the IRS because there are errors. Each spouse is held personally responsible for the entire payment if any tax that's due and owing is unpaid.

The IRS does recognize that not all marriages are perfect unions and it will sometimes grant exemptions from joint liability through innocent spouse relief, separation of liability, or equitable relief, depending on your circumstances.

The rules for these types of relief are complicated, so see a tax professional for help if you find yourself in this predicament.

Filing a Separate Married Return

Filing a separate married return provides relief from joint liability. Each spouse is only responsible for the accuracy of their own separate tax return and for the payment of any separate tax liability associated with it. But married taxpayers who file separately lose their eligibility for quite a few tax deductions and credits, so they can end up pay higher tax rates.

Filing separately can nonetheless be advantageous in a few situations:

  • When you and your spouse combine the taxes due on your separate tax returns, the total is the same as or very close to the tax that would be due on a joint return. In this case, filing separately achieves the goal of maintaining separate responsibility for the accuracy of the returns and the payment of tax but without any additional liability.
  • One spouse is unwilling or unable to consent to file a joint tax return.
  • One spouse knows or suspects that the other spouse is omitting income or overstating deductions, and that spouse doesn't want to be held personally liable for the other spouse's tax or misrepresentations.
  • The spouses live apart or are separated but not yet divorced. They want to keep their finances as separate as possible.
  • The spouses live apart and at least one spouse would qualify for head of household filing status if they didn't file together.

Qualifying Widow(er) Status When One Spouse Is Deceased 

The tax code allows you to file a joint return with your spouse for the tax year in which they died. Then, going forward, you might qualify to file as a qualifying widow(er) for two more years, or perhaps as head of household. Otherwise, you'll then have to file as a single taxpayer.

A qualifying widow(er) cannot remarry during the two years during which this filing status is available, and they must have a child or stepchild they can claim as a dependent and who lived with them through the entire tax year. Foster children don't count.

Head of Household Filing Status

Qualifying as head of household is subject to similar rules. Both statuses require that the taxpayer paid more than half the cost of maintaining their home during the tax year, but child dependents only have to live with the taxpayer for more than half the tax year, and some adult dependents qualify, too, although certain rules apply.

The taxpayer must be "considered unmarried" and cannot have lived with their spouse at any point during the last six months of the year, although death supersedes this last requirement.

Different rules apply to each filing status and some of them can be complicated, so you might want to check with a tax professional to find out if you're eligible for qualifying widow(er) or head of household status or if you must file as a single taxpayer.

Same-Sex Married Couples

Same-sex married couples can file joint tax returns using the married filing jointly status, or they can file separate returns using the married filing separately status. But taxpayers who are in registered domestic partnerships or civil unions are not considered married, so they must file their returns using either the single or head of household filing status.

The IRS has indicated that the relationship must be recognized as a marriage under the laws of the couple's state."