What are the disadvantages of the Married Filing Separately filing status?
There are a number of reasons why it’s usually better to file as Married Filing Jointly. Still, if you don’t want to file jointly, you might wonder what the disadvantages of Married Filing Separately are.
First, let’s clear the air a bit. People often ask us about the “penalty” for Married Filing Separately. In reality, there’s no tax penalty for the Married Filing Separately tax status. What people thought of as the marriage tax penalty was just a quirk of the tax brackets before 2018. Before 2018, all but the two lowest brackets many double-income married couples would owe more tax when filing jointly than they would have owed if they were still Single. That’s because the Married Filing Jointly tax rate brackets were not fully double the Single filer brackets. So, if each spouse had about the same income, there was a “marriage tax penalty” in the sense that they had to pay more total taxes.
The “marriage penalty tax” since 2018
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018 largely ended this so-called marriage tax penalty. It did this by making most of the married filing jointly tax brackets exactly twice the size of the single filer tax brackets. In addition, the Married Filing Separately tax brackets were changed to largely mirror Single filer tax brackets.
But if you’re filing a past year’s taxes, you might still wonder how to avoid the marriage “penalty” tax. In short, you can’t. The only way to avoid it would be to file as Single, but if you’re married, you can’t do that. And while there’s no penalty for the Married Filing Separately tax status, filing separately usually results in even higher taxes than filing jointly. For example, one of the big disadvantages of Married Filing Separately is that there are many credits that neither spouse can claim when filing separately. To keep things simple and be able to claim all possible tax breaks, most couples file jointly.
When it makes sense to be Married Filing Separately, despite disadvantages
Again, there’s no penalty for the Married Filing Separately tax status. And though there are disadvantages to Married Filing Separately, there are a couple of situations where you still might want to do that instead of filing jointly.
For example, if you’re afraid your spouse is cheating on their return by hiding income or inflating deductions, you might avoid being held responsible for that by filing your own return with the married filing separately status.
Also, many people think they must file separately to avoid losing a refund to their spouse’s unpaid debt, like defaulted student loan debt or back taxes. While that does work to avoid the debt responsibility, you’ll still be hit by the disadvantages of the Married Filing Separately tax status. If you’re worried about that debt, there’s a better way to avoid having to pay it. Instead of filing separately, you can protect your refund by filing an injured spouse form along with your joint return.
In some situations, one spouse may have high medical expenses and low AGI. It may be advantageous for that spouse to file a separate return to claim medical expenses as an itemized deduction (which is limited to expenses over 7.5% of AGI). The couple should make sure that the higher income spouse isn’t disadvantaged. Note that if one spouse itemizes deductions the other spouse must itemize too.
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