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What is the benefit of married filing jointly vs. married filing separately?

6 min read

6 min read

You’ve said “I do” to the love of your life, and now, for better or worse, you have to file your taxes as married for the first time! Yet, deciding how to file taxes as a couple can be tricky – as it is the first time you do anything new.

The first step is figuring out how to file taxes jointly for the first time. Your options are Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately. Each has pros and cons, which we’ll weigh below.

Questions to review with your new spouse before filing

Aside from the big “how to file” question, you may discover there are many questions you haven’t considered when it comes to your newlywed status and taxes. Most of these are things you should know about your spouse before you’re married. But there are some things you will want to discuss before you have an awkward conversation with your spouse in front of your tax pro.

  1. “Did you sell or buy a home?”, “Are you on the mortgage jointly or only one of you?”
  2. “Do you have unpaid tax debts or student loan defaults?”
  3. “Does your spouse owe or pay alimony or child support?”
  4. “Did your spouse have gambling wins or losses?”
  5. “Did you have any capital gains or losses?”

And, in the year you were married, did you add any dependents? Here’s how to file taxes after having a baby.

Benefits of Filing Jointly vs. Filing Separately

Let’s cut to the chase. When it comes to filing your tax return as Married Filing Jointly or Married Filing Separately, you’re almost always better off Married Filing Jointly (MFJ), as many tax benefits aren’t available if you file separate returns.

This is primarily because some of the most common credits and deductions are unavailable on separate returns, like:

  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) (for most filers)
  • Child and dependent care credit (for most filers)
  • Student loan interest deduction
  • Adoption credit (for most filers)
  • Lifetime Learning Credit or American Opportunity Credit
  • Credit for the elderly or disabled, if you lived with your spouse at any time in the tax year
  • Exclusion of interest on Series EE or I U.S. Savings Bonds used for higher education expenses
  • The deduction for losses from rental real estate passive activities with active participation isn’t available if you lived together at any time during the tax year and file a separate return; If you were married and lived apart the entire year you may qualify to deduct up to $12,500 of losses on a separate return. In contrast if you’re married and file jointly the maximum loss deduction is $25,000
  • Standard deduction, if your spouse itemizes deductions
  • When filing separately, both spouses need to take the standard deduction or itemize their deductions; One spouse can’t itemize deductions while the other takes the standard deduction
  • f you received Social Security or railroad retirement benefits and lived with your spouse at any time in 2022, more of your benefits may be taxable with a separate tax return

For other filing status options, see our tax filing status guide.

State-level tax considerations

Another reason to be Married Filing Jointly is because of the state you reside in. If you live in what’s known as a “community property state,” spouses who file Married Filing Separately generally must report half of the combined community income and deductions (in addition to their separate income and deductions) on the federal return. Here are the states that apply:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Should every couple file taxes jointly? 

Suppose you choose to file with the status Married Filing Jointly. In that case, you can be held responsible for the tax and any interest or penalty due. (One spouse might be held accountable for all the tax due — even if the other spouse earned all the income, and if either spouse doesn’t agree to file jointly, then both spouses must file separately.)

Every married couple’s tax circumstance is unique and there could be many reasons to file taxes jointly and some to file separately. For example, if your Adjusted Gross Income is very different from your spouse, this could call for further insight from a tax expert. Talk to a tax pro to see what option is best for your new family’s situation.

When would I want Married Filing Separately vs. Married Filing Jointly?

Here are some reasons married couples file separate returns:

  • Married Filing Separately might benefit you if you have to use the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) on a joint return (Only true if only one spouse is liable on a separate return) because the spouse with the lower income can qualify for tax deductions only by filing a separate return
  • When filing separately, one spouse can’t itemize their deductions while the other spouse takes the standard deduction
  • When itemizing deductions, expenses must be split between the spouses
  • As mentioned above, for state tax reasons (Filing separate state returns could reduce your state tax bill if the state gains are greater than the cost of federal separate returns)
  • For non-tax reasons, like maintaining separate finances

Deciding which filing status to use 

The best way to determine whether filing jointly vs. separately will benefit you the most is to prepare your returns both ways. Then, choose the filing status with the lowest net balance due or refund. After you choose the appropriate filing status for your situation, know that your tax rates (AKA tax bracket) could differ based on filing status.

With all this in mind, most married taxpayers file a joint return for both the savings it provides and convenience.

Paperwork adds up when filing together for the first time 

When filing taxes as a married couple, prepare for more paperwork than you’re used to. Make sure to get all your documents handy early in tax season to give you enough time to file. These documents include – W-2s, 1099s, medical and childcare expenses, charitable contributions, capital gains/losses, and other documents that report your income or potential tax credits or deductions.

Establish a filing system for all your important financial and tax documents. And make sure you both know where that information is kept.

After you’ve filed, take some time as a couple to evaluate where the process was a bit rocky. Then, you may want to think about how to establish good money habits for the future. For example, if your tax refund was larger than expected, you may consider adjusting your tax withholding to keep more money in your wallet. If you owed a large tax bill, you should consider changing your withholdings to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Looking ahead

Talk with your spouse about money decisions that can affect your tax liability for next year. Will you have a baby? Go back and finish your college degree? Pay off debt? Start investing? What charities will you support? Will you be moving or buying a house? These are all helpful questions to ask. And knowing the answers to how to file taxes after marriage will help you avoid any surprises at tax time next year.

Ready to file your first return together?

File with a tax pro or with H&R Block Online. You can rest assured that we’ll get you the biggest refund possible.

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