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Can Married Couples File Taxes Separately?



Question: My wife left in July of last year, and we are not legally separated or divorced or anything – and she said she filed her taxes separately. I was told that since we are married and filed jointly last time and are signed up like that, we can’t do it separately. Am I right? Please let me know.

Also, is there any way she could do the taxes for both of us through Turbo Tax without me involved if she has my Social Security Number and all kinds of other personal info?

Frank in Michigan

Jacob Dayan from Community Tax responds…

If you’re legally married to someone, you generally have the option of filing as Married Filing Separate or as Married Filing Joint. Just because you filed Married Joint in prior years doesn’t mean you have to file Married Joint in the future.

Married couples can switch from Married Filing Joint to Married Filing Separate – and back again – each year if they so choose. There are only two limits on choosing Married Joint or Married Separate status:

  • Both spouses filing status must match. In other words, one spouse can’t file Married Separate, and the other Married Joint or Head of Household, in the same tax year.
  • Once a tax return is filed, you can’t always change the filing status by amending the tax return.

Both Married Filing Joint and Married Filing Separate have pros and cons.

Married Filing Joint pros and cons

Married Filing Joint is more convenient and less expensive to file. That’s because only one return needs to be filed instead of two. However, if there’s a tax balance due on a Married Filing Joint return, the IRS can come after either spouse for the entire balance due. That’s regardless of whether or not that spouse caused it.

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I have seen balances on Married Filing Joint returns cause a lot of heartaches after separating. Sometimes, the IRS decides to pursue collections or levy one spouse and not the other for the unpaid balance – particularly when that spouse is a W-2 employee and would not have owed if they filed separately. So Married Filing Joint can be cheaper and more convenient. But it can also cause problems between spouses if there’s an unpaid balance due on the return.

Married Filing Separate pros and cons

Married Filing Separate can help spouses avoid problems. What problems? Those related to combining their tax accounts by allowing spouses to keep tax refunds and tax balances separate. In general, the IRS can’t collect a balance on a Married Filing Separate return against the other spouse. However, filing Married Separate will also disqualify both spouses from certain tax deductions and credits – like the student loan interest deduction, dependent care credit, and earned income credit, among others.

Married Separate filers also need to match their selection to itemize deductions or take the standard deduction. If one spouse takes all of the largest itemized deductions – like home mortgage interest and real estate taxes – the other spouse has to itemize as well. They may be left with little or no itemized deductions to claim.

Filing taxes separately bottom line

You’re allowed to ask anyone you’d like for assistance in preparing the return, including a current spouse. If your spouse has all your information, she can certainly prepare the return with your permission. But you will need to review and sign it before it can be filed.

If choosing Married Filing Separate status, your spouse will need to be involved in some way to ensure consistency. If you’re using web-based software like Turbo tax, she may need your help in creating an online account for you. But once she has access, she should be able to complete the return without any issues.

To learn more about tax filing, check How to File Taxes.

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