Married Filing Separately, Joint or Single? Find Out Your Filing Status

Alden Wicker
Posted

This story has been updated to reflect the 2013 tax year. 

If there is one thing to make sure you get right on your taxes, it’s your filing status. It can determine how much you pay (or save) in taxes. Plus, it’s one of the things that, if you get it wrong, will definitely land you in a dreaded audit.

(Find out what else will get you audited.)

Your filing status basically expresses how you wish to be treated by the IRS, and can determine which deductions and credits you are allowed to take, which forms you should fill out and more.

We don’t want you to stay up at night fretting over this issue, so we’ve compiled everything you need to know into a handy flow chart. Once you find out your filing status, you can read more about it below.

Mid age couple with financial advisor at home

One note before you get started:

  • In the interest of keeping the chart simple and easy-to-use, this does not account for people who are not United States citizens. (If you are a resident alien, you might find this useful.)

Married Filing Separately

Married filing separately is just like it sounds: You have a spouse, but each of you will file a separate return, and keep your finances separate: separate incomes, separate expenses, everything.

If you got this as your filing status, you must have a really good reason. The IRS discourages couples from filing under this status by preventing couples filing separately from taking many deductions and credits available to married couples filing jointly. Plus, it’s twice the work for you and your spouse to file separately! However, there are some cases where it’s in your interest to file separately.

RELATED: Tax Time: Should a Married Couple Ever File Separately?

Large Deductible Expenses

The first case is when you have a large expense that might be deductible. An expense must be over a certain percentage of your AGI (figure out your AGI) in order to qualify as deductible. So let’s say you had a medical expense that cost you $5,000. If you file separately and your AGI is $50,000, that means the medical expense was 10% of your AGI. You can deduct a portion of it. But if you filed jointly with your spouse, who has an AGI of just $30,000, that means the medical expense was only 6.25% of your combined AGI, and you can no longer deduct it, which means you could be missing out on some tax savings. (Read our post on deductions to see which ones you might qualify for.)

You’ll have to look at your entire financial picture to decide what works best for you (because you may miss out on other deductions by filing separately). We suggest either getting the help of an accountant, or working through the tax filing paperwork separately and then jointly to compare the tax bill on each.

Your Spouse Has a Business

Instead of being a math equation, this decision is based on how comfortable you feel with combining your interests with your spouses. If you file a joint return, you will be liable with your spouse for any audits, fines and interest on unpaid taxes, as this woman learned the hard way when she found out she owed $3 million to the IRS because of her late husband’s creative accounting. She had no idea he was cheating on his taxes, but it cost her years and thousands in lawyer fees to prove her innocence. (This is how she did it.) So even if your spouse doesn’t own a business, but you suspect he’s not on the up-and-up with the IRS, we suggest not signing your name on the paperwork he files.

Even well-meaning business owners can make mistakes. For example, this business owner just made an honest mistake that resulted in fines. If you’ve ever heard the words, “I can’t figure out these freakin’ taxes,” or worse, “Taxes are stupid, and I don’t believe in paying them,” out of your spouse’s mouth, file a separate return.

If, however, you are ever caught in a situation like this, don’t panic; the IRS has two special publications just for you. The first is called Innocent Spouse Relief, and you can claim it when your spouse does something shady that you didn’t know about. The second is called Injured Spouse, and it can be claimed by you when your spouse owes child support or money to the IRS, and you want your fair share of the refund.

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Married Filing Jointly

This is the typical choice for married couples, and it should save you big in taxes. You are eligible for more deductions and credits, and it will simplify your tax filing significantly. Find out how combining your salaries will affect your taxes.

Head of Household

This is the IRS’s way of recognizing the challenge of taking care of someone else financially. This could mean someone is living in your home and you’re paying for their expenses like clothing and food. Or it could mean you’re taking care of a parent. If you are paying for a parent who is in a retirement home, this counts as well. Find out more about what qualifies someone as a dependent.

Single

Your finances are pretty simple, and so is your filing status. You’re considered “unmarried” if you have never been married, are divorced, are widowed without a dependent, or are married but legally separated by court decree (not just sleeping in separate bedrooms).

Widow(er) With Dependent Child

Losing a spouse is difficult, and can be more difficult when one is left to care alone for a child. This filing status is intended to lend a hand to those who have lost a spouse in the last two years and are still supporting a dependent. You cannot file as a widow(er) if you are not supporting anyone, your spouse passed away in 2010 or earlier, or you remarried this year.

If your spouse died in the last year and you did remarry before the end of the year, you can file a joint return with your new spouse. Your deceased spouse’s filing status is married filing separately for that year.

More on Taxes From LearnVest

Beware of the rapid refund! Learn more about this predatory service.
Your filing status affects what exemptions you can take. Find out how.
Your filing status also affects what tax forms you’ll use. Read all about them.

  • Vicki

    I got married in the last tax year and as my husband is not a US citizen, he doesn’t have a social security number, and therefore we weren’t able to file jointly. I guess that doesn’t apply to too many people but you might want to consider foreign spouses and/or foreign income in your flowchart.

    • Shunte Thomas

      I was in the same boat. We found out that he could have applied for a ss# despite him not being a us citizen. If he entered the US legally, check into getting him a ss# asap.
      It makes tax time a little easier :0)

  • Steph

    The question asking if your spouse owns a business doesn’t make sense because how it is asked the answer “No” could mean “No, my spouse doesn’t own a business,” or it could mean “My spouse owns a business, but, No, I don’t want to be liable for mistakes.” If your answer is “No, my spouse doesn’t own a business” it leads you to Married filing separately. Maybe I am misunderstanding, but by answering these questions with all “nos” besides Yes to married it states to file Married filing separately. From all I know about taxes (not much to be honest) and from the text on this page I conclude that if you’re married and do not have unusual circumstances (high medical bills, very different income between spouses, etc.) then you should file married filing jointly. Now I am confused…

    • Anonymous

      Hi Steph, after reading your comment, we see what you mean, so we’ve updated the flowchart to be more clear. Thank you for pointing that out to us!

      • ssk4

        Only issue is that the answer “NO” still goes to Married Filing Separately, and I believe a “NO” should point to Married Filing Jointly instead. Please review.

        • Anonymous

          Hi ssk4,

          The chart has been corrected. Thanks for pointing that out.

          Laura

          • Rajaphilly

            Laur, Turbotax or taxcut do not allow the same SSN if you state that married, filing jointly and paying support amount to the married spouse. Not sure how to tackle this situation..

  • ssk4

    I second Steph’s comment. Please clarify ASAP this area of the flow chart because I think it will be very misleading to many married people who would (and should) be filing jointly.

  • Mrsjmom2000

    question actually…my husband and I were separated by Dec 31, 2011 (I filed divorce papers with the courts but he has not filed the Response to said papers), how would we file our taxes for 2011?  We lived together up until Oct 2011.  We do have children and I have them full time – they do not see him or spend time with him, although he does help with their support.

  • Anonymous

     Hi Mrsjmom2000,

    You are considered married because the divorce is not final.
     
    The only way to be considered unmarried is if you met all of the following five tests:

    1) You file a separate return
    2) You paid more than half the cost of keeping up your home for the year
    3) Your spouse did not live in your home during the last six months of the tax year

    4) Your home was the main home of your child, stepchild, etc.
    5) You’re able to claim an exemption for the child
     But since you lived with your husband for more than six months last year, you should file married filing jointly, or married filing separately.

     

  • Hilltopwv

    I am a widower, spouse died in 2005. I do not claim that allowance any longer, however, my son still lives with me.  he was 20 in 2011, and worked in 2011.  He claimed himself on his taxes.  My question is, I know I can’t claim him as a dependent, but I still maintain the home, he doesn’t contribute to the cost of food, electricty or the mortage. Am I able to claim head of household without claiming him as a dependent?

    • Anonymous

      Hi Hilltopwv,

      Unfortunately, because he is not your dependent (I’m assuming because he earned more than $3,700 in 2011) you cannot claim head of household status. Hope that helps!

      Alden

      • Hilltopwv

        Yes, thank you.  He earned more than 3700.  I didn’t think I could claim head of household, but thought it was worth the question.  Thank you for you response. 

  • Elliott0707

    a person who supports himself and his child, has not seen or heard from his wife for years. Do he use the tax tables for married individual filing separately?

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