When to file taxes jointly versus separately
Feb 1, 2024
Marriage, Financial planning
When you get married, your focus may be on buying your first home, merging your finances, or planning to have a baby. You’re probably not thinking about the tax implications of being married.
Benjamin Franklin said it best, "nothing is certain except death and taxes." Taxes aren't the most fun topic at the dinner table, but most couples don't realize that understanding taxes can often mean paying less in taxes and keeping more for your new life together.
Let’s take a closer look at how a couple’s tax filing status changes, the differences between filing jointly vs separately, when it can be beneficial for modern couples to file separately, and more.
How your tax filing status changes when you get married
Before you got married, fewer options meant that your taxes were simpler. Once you're married, you'll get to choose if you want to file married filing jointly or married filing separately as a married couple.
If you’re unsure which year you should update your filing status, it’s simply based on the calendar year your marriage license is issued.
For example, if you get married in June 2024, the 2024 tax return that you file by April 2025 will need to be submitted as married filing jointly or married filing separately.
Even if you were single for 11.5 months of the year and were only married for the last two weeks of December 2024, you would still file your entire 2024 tax return as either married filing separately, or married filing jointly.
Does getting married help or hurt your tax bills?
For the majority of couples, getting married will either have no impact on taxes or result in tax savings.
Although, it’s also worth being aware that about one percent of couples can experience a marriage penalty tax when they tie the knot. Couples who owe more in total taxes with a married filing status vs what they would owe as two single individuals combined experience a marriage penalty tax.
This typically occurs when a married couple has a combined income of more than $731,200 and up to $1,218,700 (based on the 2024 Federal Marginal Income Tax Brackets).
What is the difference between married filing jointly and married filing separately?
Married filing jointly is the filing status that 95% of married couples elect when they file taxes. Both spouses input all their combined income, deductions, credits, and exemptions into one tax return with both of their names on it. For most couples, choosing the “married filing jointly” filing status results in the lowest taxes.
Married filing separately is the path less followed. Although married filing separately may sound like something only intended for couples who have split up, that’s not the case at all. It simply means that each spouse reports their own income, deductions, credits, and exemptions on two separate tax returns.
It’s important to note that the IRS requires both spouses to file using the same deduction method. In other words, couples who elect to file separately must agree to both file their returns using the standard deduction or to both file using itemized deductions. This selection can't be mixed and matched across a couple’s two separate returns.
For 2024, the standard deduction amount for singles is $14,600, $29,200 for married couples and head of household. Everybody gets to take the standard deduction to reduce their taxable income. However, if your itemized deductions are greater than your standard deduction, choose the former to save more on taxes.
Also, be aware that deductions can only be claimed by one spouse even if both spouses paid for the expense. However, you can choose to split a deduction, and each claim your own portion of it as long as the combined total doesn’t exceed the total deduction amount.
When do you have to decide on filing jointly or separately?
The IRS allows married couples to choose which filing status they want to elect every tax year. Couples can even flip back and forth between the two filing statuses from one tax year to the next.
There is no limit to how often married couples can switch between the two filing statuses during their marriage either.
Couples can even file an amended return to switch filing status from joint to separate, or vice versa, on returns filed within three years from the due date of the original return.
Benefits of married filing separately
In most cases, filing jointly results in lower taxes. married couples are best suited to file jointly. So, when is married filing separately better? Here are some example scenarios.
Medical deductions - If one spouse has a large amount of out-of-pocket medical expenses they want to deduct such as Lasik surgery and egg freezing, filing separately can make it easier to qualify using only one income (deductions are available if they exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income).
Student loan repayment plans - Qualifying for a student loan repayment plan can be easier when filing separately due to using only one income.
Casualty losses - Natural disasters may grow more frequent. Couples who live in federally declared disaster areas and have a higher combined income, may receive higher deductions by filing separately.
Lower tax bracket potential - Two working spouses making about the same amount of money may pay lower tax rates if they file separately vs together if they land in a lower tax bracket.
Refund vs taxes owed - If one spouse is due a tax refund while the other has a large tax bill, filing separately can be beneficial. It can protect the refund for the spouse who overpaid and it will not get applied to the other spouse’s balance owed. This is most relevant for couples who have not fully joined their finances.
Separation of finances and liabilities - Separating financial responsibilities may be easier by filing separately. If a couple is planning to divorce, filing separately can also make it easier to see who owes and is responsible for what.
There are situational benefits to married filing separately in terms of taxes, ownership clarity, credits, deductions, and privacy in some cases.
Benefits of married filing jointly
Now let’s look at all the benefits of married filing jointly filing status.
Lower Tax Rates - The tax brackets are wider for married joint filers, meaning more income is taxed at lower rates. This often results in less total tax owed.
Larger Standard Deduction - Married couples filing jointly get double the standard deduction than filing separately. This could be beneficial if one spouse has income below the single standard deduction amount. If so, the excess standard deduction could get carried over to the spouse that makes more. For 2024, the standard deduction is $29,200 vs $14,600 respectively.
Certain Tax Credits - Married couples filing jointly may qualify for several tax credits they would not have if they filed separately, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, Child and Dependent Tax Credit, and American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Education Tax Credits.
Combined Deductions - Joint returns allow couples to combine deductions for things like medical expenses, charitable gifts, and business expenses under certain limits. In some instances, the combined itemized deductions could allow for greater tax savings.
Reduced Taxable Social Security - The formulas for making Social Security benefits taxable may be more beneficial for married joint filers, which means lower taxes.
Contribution Limits - Limits on retirement plan contributions like IRAs often depend on marital status and joint vs separate filing. The limits for joint filing are typically better suited for most couples.
Is it better to file jointly or separately?
Most couples benefit best from filing together. The advantages really come down to incentives in the tax code meant to provide relief and simplify filing for most married couples. Although there are always exceptions, married filing jointly usually results in overall lower taxes.
If you're not sure - an easy starting place is an online marriage tax calculator that takes into account the biggest deductions / credit difference.
If you're still not sure or you have more unique circumstances (like business or medical expenses), try a tax filing tool that allows you to try each path.
If your taxes are still more complicated than what a tool easily lets you understand, it might be time to consider hiring a tax professional.
Keep in mind, taxes can get extremely complicated especially since everyone’s situation is unique as their fingerprints. Plus, tax laws, rates, and deduction rules have been known to change frequently.
We encourage you to speak with a tax professional if you want to learn more about what’s best for your filing status, deductions, rates, and taxes owed. The information provided in this article is not tax advice and is offered for general educational purposes only. If you have tax-related questions or require assistance with tax preparation and filing, please consult a licensed tax professional or qualified attorney.
Get better with money matters together
As a modern couple who carefully makes financial decisions, it's worth reviewing which tax filing status offers you the most savings each tax year. This way, you can grow your wealth faster.
At Plenty, we help modern couples make better financial decisions. We bring you and your partner together on money, helping you communicate better and achieve your financial goals sooner. It's your easy, modern solution for managing money as a couple.
- Team Plenty