Married Filing Separately

Married taxpayers filing separate tax returns

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Married taxpayers can choose between filing a joint tax return or a separate tax return. The Married Filing Separately filing status provides fewer tax benefits than filing joint returns, so taxpayers will need to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves which is the best filing status.

How Married Filing Separately Impacts the Tax Return

If you are married, then you and your spouse can file separate tax returns.

The married filing separately (MFS) filing status is generally perceived as the least beneficial of all the filing statuses. That's because MFS taxpayers are not eligible to claim the following tax benefits:

MFS taxpayers also have lower income phase-out ranges for the IRA deduction.

Additionally, MFS taxpayers must both claim the standard deduction or must both itemize their deductions. In other words, one MFS taxpayer cannot claim the standard deduction if the other spouse is itemizing. 

Filing status also which tax rates are used when calculating a person's federal income tax for the year. The table below shows the tax rates in effect for married persons who file separate returns for the year 2017.

2017 Ordinary Tax Rates for Married Filing Separately Filing Status
[Tax Rate Schedule Y-2, Internal Revenue Code section 1(d)]

If taxable income isabcdefg
overbut not overTaxable incomeMinusSubtract (b) from (a)Multiplication amountMultiply (c) by (d)Additional AmountAdd (e) and (f)
$09,325 $0 × 10% $0 
9,32537,950 9,325 × 15% 932.50 
37,95076,550 37,950 × 25% 5,226.25 
76,550116,675 76,550 × 28% 14,876.25 
116,675208,350 116,675 × 33% 26,111.25 
208,350235,350 208,350 × 35% 56,364.00 
235,350 --  235,350 × 39.6% 65,814.00 

Benefit of Filing Separately: Separation of Tax Liabilities

There is one clear benefit of filing separately. By filing a separate return, the taxpayer is solely responsible for the accuracy and payment of tax related to that person's separate return. By contrast, on a jointly filed return, both spouses are personally responsible for the accuracy of the return and the payment of tax. A spouse who is unwilling to assume legal and financial responsibility for the other spouse's tax obligations should strongly consider filing separately.

The editors of JK Lasser's Your Income Tax advise:

"If you suspect that your spouse is evading taxes and may be liable on a joint return, you may want to file a separate return. By filing separately, you avoid liability for unpaid taxes due on a joint return, plus penalties and interest."

In other words, on a separate return, the taxpayer will be responsible only for the accuracy of that tax return, if audited, and will be responsible for paying the tax on that return (or any additional tax that results from an audit).

Married taxpayers who file separately are not eligible for several tax deductions and credits, and may have higher tax rates. While it is usually advantageous to file a joint return, there are situations when filing separately may be preferred:

  • The tax on the separate tax returns, when combined, is the same or very close to the tax on a joint return. In this case, filing separately achieves the goal of maintaining separate responsibility for the accuracy of the return and payment of tax.
  • One spouse is unwilling or unable to consent to filing a joint tax return.
  • One spouse knows or suspects the other spouse is omitting income or overstating deductions, and the spouse does not want to be held personally responsible for the other spouse's tax.
  • The spouses live apart or are separated but not yet divorced, and they wish to keep their finances as separate as possible.
  • The spouses live apart and one spouse would qualify for head of household.

For some couples, there are non-tax reasons for filing separately, such as keeping their finances separate from each other.

Some Married Persons may be Eligible for Head of Household Status

Married taxpayers may be eligible to file separate tax returns using the Head of Household filing status.  You may be eligible for head of household if your spouse did not live with you during the last six months of the year and your home was the main home of your child for more than half the year. Here's what the IRS has to say on this topic:

"You may be able to choose head of household filing status if you live apart from your spouse, and meet certain tests.... This can apply to you even if you are not divorced or legally separated. If you qualify to file as head of household, instead of as married filing separately, your tax may be lower, you may be able to claim the earned income credit and certain other credits, and your standard deduction will be higher. The head of household filing status allows you to choose the standard deduction even if your spouse chooses to itemize deductions" (From the married filing separately section of Publication 501, IRS).

Reporting Community Property

Couples where one or both spouses reside in a community property state will need to follow special rules for allocating income and deductions. Community property is considered to be jointly owned by both spouses. Accordingly, each spouse generally reports half of the total community property income on his or her separate tax return. Similarly, community property deductions are split in half, with each spouse reporting half the deduction on their separate return. See Publication 555, Community Property, for further details.

Filing Jointly Requires Mutual Consent

Married couples who want to file jointly will need to both sign the jointly filed tax return. Sometimes, one spouse is unable or unwilling to sign the joint return. In that case, the spouses will need to file separately.

Time Frame for Deciding to File Jointly or Separately

Married couples can decide to file either jointly or separately when they file an original return for a particular year. Couples can change their mind and switch from two separate returns to a single joint return within three years from the due date of the original return (without extensions).

However, couples can change their mind and switch from a joint return to two separate returns only by the April 15th deadline. To change your filing status after filing your tax return, you will need to submit an amended tax return.