Married couples: Is it better to file taxes jointly or separately?

Married couples have a choice to make at tax time: They can file their returns jointly or separately. Many automatically file joint returns, but there are some situations in which filing separately can be beneficial.

Morris Armstrong, enrolled agent in Cheshire, Connecticut, is authorized to represent taxpayers in front of the IRS. He runs the numbers both ways for clients to analyze whether filing jointly or separately is better for them. His expertise is especially important for couples with children and one spouse who earns a lot more than the other.

In 2020 and 2021, some couples came out ahead by filing separately because of the way the stimulus payments were calculated, he says. But now that those payments have ended, it’s a good time to reassess your filing status for tax year 2022.

“Married filing separately is an uncommon filing status, however it can be beneficial for certain legal and strategic reasons,” James A.J. Revels, certified public accountant and partner at KPMG in Philadelphia, says.

Keep reading for help deciding which way to go for tax year 2022.

Reasons to File Jointly

There are many advantages to filing a joint tax return. One is that you’ll receive one of the largest standard deductions each year, which will enable you to deduct a significant amount of income when calculating taxable income. Here are some reasons to file jointly:

You May Get a Lower Tax Rate

In most cases, a married couple will come out ahead by filing jointly.

“You typically get lower tax rates when married filing jointly, and you have to file jointly to claim some tax benefits,” Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and tax expert for TurboTax, says. “You need to consider your tax rate, your income and what deductions and credits you’re eligible for when you’re thinking about filing jointly or separately.”

You Earn More Credits and Deductions

If you’re married, you’re eligible for certain tax breaks only if you file a joint return. Couples who file separately can’t claim the American opportunity credit or lifetime learning credit for education expenses, and they can’t take the student loan interest deduction.

In most cases, you can’t claim the dependent care credit if you file separately. But if you’re legally separated or living apart from your spouse, you may still be able to file separately and claim the credit, Revels says.

Married couples generally need to file jointly to receive a tax credit for qualified adoption expenses, but there is an exception for certain taxpayers who are living apart from their spouses and meet other requirements, Revels says.

Additionally, a person who files separately may claim the adoption credit from prior years if they were married and filed a joint return in the year when the qualified adoption expenses first became allowable for the credit, he says.

[Read: Tax Write-Offs You Shouldn’t Overlook.]

You Can Contribute to a Roth IRA

Married couples filing jointly also have a much higher income cutoff to be eligible to make Roth IRA contributions.

They can contribute to a Roth IRA for tax year 2022 as long as their combined modified adjusted gross income was less than $214,000 — the contribution amount starts to phase out if they earned more than $204,000 in 2022.

If you’re married filing separately and lived with your spouse at any time during the year, however, you can contribute to a Roth IRA only if your income is less than $10,000.

[READ: How Roth IRA Taxes Work]

Reasons to File Separately

In some situations, filing separately could help you save on your tax return. Just keep in mind that couples who do typically receive fewer tax benefits. Here are some reasons to file separately:

You Earn the Same Level of Income as Your Spouse

The way the tax brackets are calculated, some high-income couples may end up with lower tax rates if they file separately, Greene-Lewis says. “High-income earners, if both spouses earn the same, may come out better filing separately.”

[READ:New Income Tax Brackets for 2023 May Save You Money]

But couples with lower incomes may pay more tax if they file separately.

“You will potentially have a slightly higher tax when filing separately than you would have on a jointly filed return in lower tax brackets,” Revels says.

You can run your numbers with TurboTax’s TaxCaster calculator to estimate how much you’d pay in taxes if you file jointly versus separately. Most tax software and tax professionals will do the calculations both ways and let you know which filing status would work better for you.

You Have Hefty Medical Bills

Filing separately may help you qualify for some tax breaks. For example, if you itemize, you can deduct unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

If one spouse has a lot of medical expenses and the lower income, filing separately may make it easier to cross the 7.5% income threshold to deduct the expenses.

“These medical expenses will have to be greater than 7.5% of their adjusted gross income and higher than the standard deduction in order to benefit,” Revels says.

For tax year 2022, the standard deduction is $25,900 for married couples filing jointly and $12,950 for single taxpayers and married individuals filing separately. Married taxpayers who are 65 and older each get an extra $1,400 added to their standard deductions. If one spouse itemizes their deductions, the other has to as well.

Your Income Determines Your Student Loan Payments

Filing separately may also help reduce the income level that determines student loan payments, Revels says.

“Some taxpayers’ student loan payments are based on their tax return income,” he says. “It may be beneficial to change to married filing separately if this would result in a lower payment plan.”

You Don’t Want to Be Responsible for Each Other’s Tax Liabilities

One of the most common reasons people file separately is to limit their liability for their spouse’s tax errors.

“In situations where there is a lack of trust between spouses, typically due to business activities or tax positions being taken on a tax return, filing separately is a way to help protect the innocent spouse from any potential legal or tax issues,” Revels says.

“When you file married filing jointly, each person is responsible for the accuracy of the return and the paying of the tax that may be due or assessed in the future,” Armstrong says.

“In addition, if there is a history of balance due, or you are filing many years at once in order to get into compliance, filing as married filing jointly puts all assets on the table. This means that the wife who has $600,000 in her 401(k) may have that seized by the IRS to satisfy back taxes, even if the bulk of the income, and mistakes, were caused by the other spouse,” he says.

Couples typically file separately if they are going through a divorce, Revels says.

“Married filing separately is used during the divorce process to separate each person’s tax situation and finances,” he says. “This also removes the responsibility for each other’s tax liabilities.”

You Can Amend a Return for Retroactive Benefits

Armstrong helped a woman who had filed separately from her husband for several years because they thought it was best since he had only Social Security income to report and she was still working. Armstrong looked back at their last several years of returns and found that they actually would have come out ahead by filing jointly.

“Married filing jointly expanded the tax brackets, and it did not matter whose income it was,” Armstrong says. He filed amended returns for them for three years and they ended up with large refunds.

According to Armstrong, you can amend your return to married filing jointly for three years back and capture all available credits. You generally have up to three years after filing your original return or two years after the date you paid the tax to file an amended return, whichever is later.

You can’t, however, amend a married filing jointly return into married filing separately after the filing deadline.

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Update 02/14/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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