The Married Filing Separately Tax Filing Status

Considerations for Married Taxpayers Who File Separate Tax Returns

Married taxpayers can file joint tax returns together, or they can file separate returns. The "married filing separately" (MFS) status provides fewer tax benefits, however. You'll be disqualified from claiming several advantageous deductions and credits, and your income phaseout limits for other deductions will be more prohibitive. 

So why do it? It depends on your personal circumstances and concerns.

Many professionals advise doing your taxes both ways to figure out which is the most advantageous for your personal situation. 

Benefits of Filing Separately: Division of Tax Liability

Both spouses are "jointly and severally liable" for the accuracy of a jointly filed tax return, and they're also jointly and severally liable for any resulting taxes. An exception exists if one spouse can prove a case for innocent spouse relief, establishing that he had no knowledge of the other's misstatement of tax information. It would therefore be unfair to hold him liable for any debt or penalties resulting from those misstatements. 

But you don't have to deal with all this if you file separately. You're automatically responsible only for the accuracy of your own tax return, and you're only responsible for paying the taxes due on income you personally earned.

You might prefer this arrangement if your income is $20,000 while your spouse earns six figures.

Filing jointly would put you on the hook for personally paying some significant taxes resulting from his far superior income. And, of course, you might not want to be involved if you know or suspect that your spouse is omitting income or overstating deductions.

Other Advantages of the MFS Status

Filing separately doesn't present any real drawback if the combined taxes that are due on two separate tax returns are the same as or very close to the tax that would be due on a joint return.

You'll receive protection against liability, even if you don't have any particular reason to worry about that. 

Some spouses just prefer to keep their finances as separate as possible.

When You Don't Have a Choice

You must file a separate return if your spouse is unwilling or unable to consent to filing a joint return with you. Both of you must sign the return when you file together. An exception to this rule exists when one spouse dies during the tax year. 

How Married Filing Separately Impacts Tax Breaks 

The MFS filing status is generally perceived as being the least beneficial of all the filing statuses because separately filing married taxpayers are prohibited from claiming several tax breaks. These include:  

MFS taxpayers also have lower income phase-out ranges for the IRA deduction. They must both claim the standard deduction when they're filing, or they must both itemize their deductions. 

Married Filing Separately Tax Rates

Your filing status also affects your tax rates.

The following tax rates are in effect for those who are married but file separate returns in 2020 for tax year 2019.

Rate           Income From        To 

 10% $0 $9,700
 12% $9,701 $39,475
 22% $39,476 $84,200
 24% $84,201 $160,725
 32% $160,726 $204,100
 35% $204,101 $306,175
 37% $306,176 or more 

These brackets are the same as those that apply to single taxpayers...with one major exception. The 35% tax bracket covers income up to $510,300 for single taxpayers, but those who are married and file separately hit the highest tax bracket of 37% at incomes of just $306,175, over a significant $200,000 difference. 

Head of Household Status

You or your spouse—or perhaps even both of you—might qualify for the head of household filing status instead if you're living apart and separated but not yet divorced.

This can be particularly advantageous. 

You can't have lived together during the last six months of the year to qualify. Additionally, your home must have been the primary residence of at least one of your children for more than half the year, or the primary residence of another dependent for the entire year. Some family members, such as your parents, don't have to live with you to qualify as your dependents, but you must have paid for more than half the cost of maintaining their household. Likewise, you must pay for more than half the cost of your own household if your dependent lives with you. 

You can claim the tax deductions and credits that would otherwise be unavailable to you if you're eligible to file as head of household rather than MFS.  

Reporting Community Property

Couples who reside in one of the nine community property states must follow special rules for allocating income and deductions when they file separately.

Community property and income is considered to be jointly owned by both spouses. In other words, if your spouse earns $50,000, half of that is attributable to you regardless of whether you personally earned it. Each spouse must report half the total community property income on his or her separate tax return, even if you never worked a day all year. 

Deductions are also split in half with each spouse reporting half the deduction on his separate return. These rules apply even if just one spouse lives in a community property state, and it can obviously affect how much income you're responsible for reporting on a separate married return.

The community property states are California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin as of 2019. 

Time Frame for Deciding to File Jointly or Separately

Married couples should decide whether to file either jointly or separately when they file their original tax return for the year, but they can change their minds and switch from two separate returns to a single joint return within three years from the due date of the original return, not counting any extensions.

They can change their minds and switch from a joint return to two separate returns only by the April 15 deadline for that tax year. 

In either case, you must submit an amended tax return, Form 1040X, if you want to change your filing status after filing your tax return.