Here’s How to Decide Whether to File Your Taxes Married or Single

The all-important date here is December 31 of the tax year. Your marital status on that date determines your status for the whole year.

You’re a single filer if you were never married unless you can qualify as head of household. In no case, however, can you file a married return.

You’re also considered single if your divorce is final as of the last day of the year, or if you’re legally separated from your spouse under a court order. Simply moving into separate residences won’t impress the IRS. This would be an informal separation and the tax code says you’re still married. It can’t be a temporary court order, either, one that simply governs the situation until your divorce is finalized.

In all other circumstances, you must file a married return. A slim exception exists under the head of household rules if you haven’t lived with your spouse at any point during the last six months of the year, but you must meet some additional rules to qualify.

Otherwise, your choice is limited to filing a joint married return or a separate married return. The tax code treats you as a single filer in several ways if you file a separate return, but with some penalties. You’ll be prohibited from claiming a variety of tax credits and deductions.

You and your spouse are each “jointly and severally liable” for any taxes or penalties that come due on a joint married return, and you’re also responsible for any errors or omissions on the return. If your spouse owes money to a government entity on a debt that you’re not also liable for paying, you could lose your share of any resulting tax refund if it’s intercepted. The IRS does allow you to try to make a case that you weren’t personally aware of errors or omissions, however, and you can also make a claim for your share of the refund if you weren’t responsible for the debt in question.

The married filing jointly tax brackets are considered to be among the most favorable. You might actually find yourself in a lower tax bracket overall by filing jointly if you’re married.

For example, you and your spouse might jointly earn $130,000 annually. This puts you in the 22% tax bracket for 2020. You’d fall into the 24% bracket on an income of $130,000 if you weren’t married and filed a single return—a 2% difference, and every percentage point counts.

This difference in brackets and rates can be particularly beneficial when one spouse is self-employed and has business losses. Those losses effectively subtract from the other spouse’s earnings when they file a joint return.

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