Married Filing Separately: How It Works, When to Do It

Taxpayers with student loans, big medical bills or complicated situations may want to look at this tax strategy.
Tina Orem
By Tina Orem 
Edited by Chris Hutchison

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Virtually all married couples file their taxes jointly, and who can blame them? It’s usually easier to prepare one tax return than two, and it almost always results in a lower tax bill than filing separately. But sometimes, using the married filing separately tax status to split up those returns might make sense financially. Here's how it works and when it could benefit you.

What is married filing separately?

Married filing separately is one of five tax-filing statuses available to taxpayers. Under the married filing separately status, each spouse files their own tax return instead of one return jointly. Instead of combining income, each person separately reports income and deductions.

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How married filing separately works

Although most married couples file jointly, they can choose the married filing separately status if they want.

There are rules to follow for filing separately, though.

  • If one spouse itemizes instead of taking the standard deduction, for example, the other spouse must itemize, too. You’ll also have to decide which spouse gets each deduction, and that can get complicated.

  • Plus, there are a bunch of deductions and credits you probably won’t be allowed to take if you file separately, such as the credit for child and dependent care expenses, the earned income credit, the adoption credit, education credits and the deduction for student loan interest.

  • Filing separately isn’t the same as filing single. Only single people can file single, and their tax brackets are different in some cases from the ones that will apply to you if you're married and filing separately.

Nonetheless, in the right circumstances, being married and filing separately could save you money. Here are a few things to think about if you’re considering whether it’s right for you.

Student loans

  • If you’re enrolled in an income-based student loan repayment plan, filing separately could reduce your monthly bill. Income-based repayment programs generally key off adjusted gross income, or AGI.

  • If you choose the married filing separately status, your payments are in many cases based only on the borrower’s income rather than on your joint income as a couple. That’s a big consideration that makes it worth the time to calculate your taxes both jointly and separately. It could be worth filing separately and paying an extra $500 in April, for example, if you’re going to save $200 a month in student loan payments.

  • Though keep in mind that you won't be able to take several education tax credits, like the student loan interest deduction or the lifetime learning credit, if you use this filing status.

Medical expenses

  • Generally, you can deduct unreimbursed medical expenses — but only the portion that exceeds 7.5% of your AGI. Filing separately could make more of those expenses deductible.

  • Here’s an example. Let’s say you and your spouse are both 30, and one of you racked up $6,000 in unreimbursed medical bills last year. If you file jointly and your combined AGI is, say, $100,000, then only the portion of your medical bills over 7.5% of that — or the portion over $7,500 — is deductible. So in this scenario, you can’t deduct a penny of your $6,000 in medical bills because you filed jointly.

  • Now let’s say you file separately. Your AGI is, say, $55,000 and your spouse’s AGI is $45,000. Now the math may work in your favor, because anything more than $4,125 (that’s 7.5% of your AGI) is deductible. If you were the one with the medical bills, filing separately just got you a $1,875 deduction. Alternatively, if the medical bills belong to your spouse, he or she could deduct anything over 7.5% of that $45,000 AGI, or $3,375. That would mean a $2,625 tax deduction for filing separately.


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Complicated spouses

  • If your spouse brought overdue taxes into the relationship, it may be worth choosing the married filing separately status. That way, the IRS may not snatch your refund away and apply it to your spouse’s overdue bill.

  • Remember, however, that in most cases filing separately means a higher overall tax bill for both of you. So if the goal is to keep your tax bills low, the better choice may be to fork over that refund and get that liability out of your hair.

  • If you’re getting a divorce or you suspect your spouse isn’t being upfront about tax matters, you should think about filing separately, too. After all, once you sign that joint return, you have joint liability. You may be able to get innocent spouse relief from the IRS if things explode, but convincing the IRS that you’re innocent isn’t easy.

What’s yours is mine

If you’re thinking seriously about filing separately, there’s one more thing to understand: Even if you do the math and determine you’ll pay less by filing separately, state law might throw a wrench in your plans. That’s because if you live in a community property state — Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin — anything couples earn generally belongs to both spouses equally. Couples filing separately there each have to report half of the income both spouses earned, which could nullify most of the advantages of filing separately.

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