It is that time of year when you need to file your income taxes and we want you to be informed. Your filing status for taxes depends partly on your marital status on the last day of the year. If you were still legally married (meaning there is no final divorce decree) as of December 31, 2011 you are considered to have been married for the full year and must file as either married filing jointly or married filing separately. For federal tax purposes, “marriage” currently only means a legal union between a man and a woman as husband and wife. Your filing status is important and is used for many things on your tax return, such as determining your standard deduction, whether you need to file a return, the amount of tax you owe, and whether you qualify for various deductions and credits. When it comes to your filing status, you do have options.
Married Filing Jointly
If you are still legally married, you and your spouse can file a joint tax return. Married couples do not have to be living together to file jointly. If you file a joint return you both must include all your income, exemptions, deductions, and credits on that return. Even if you or your spouse had no income or deductions, you can still file a joint return. You must balance taxes due against your risk of being jointly and separately liable for taxes, interest, and penalties on a joint return. If you question whether your spouse is reporting all income, or have little or no knowledge of your spouse’s income and finances, discuss this issue with legal counsel before signing a joint return. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can hold you liable for all taxes due on a jointly filed return, as well as penalties and interest, even if your spouse alone earned the underlying income.
Married Filing Separately
Legally married couples can also file “married filing separate” whether they live together or not. If you and your spouse file separate returns, you should each report only your own income, exemptions, deductions, and credits on your individual return. You can file a separate return even if only one of you had income. However, the married filing separately status rarely works to lower the family tax bill. For example, one major disadvantage is that you can’t have one spouse itemize and claim all the deductions while the other claims the standard deduction. Both husband and wife must either itemize or use the standard deduction. You can’t mix and match. So if one spouse itemizes and the other has nothing to itemize, that spouse would not then be able to claim the standard deduction, which might have reduced the amount of taxes owed.
Another disadvantage with “married filing separate” filers is that they can no longer take any relevant exclusions, credits, or deductions for adoption or education expenses. Likewise, various exclusion and exemption amounts will be cut for child and dependent care expenses, employer dependent care assistance, and alternative minimum tax. Here are some examples if you file separate returns with your spouse:
• You cannot take the Earned Income Credit.
• You cannot take the Child and Dependent Care Credit in most cases.
• You cannot exclude any interest income from U.S. savings bonds that you used for education expenses.
• You cannot take the Credit for the Elderly or Disabled unless you lived apart from your spouse all year.
• You may owe more taxes on Social Security income or railroad retirement benefits than if you filed jointly.
• You cannot deduct interest paid on student loans.
• You cannot take any education credits.
• You cannot take an exclusion for adoption expenses or the Adoption Credit in most cases.
Benefits of filing under this status include only having liability for the tax, interest, and penalties on your own return. The IRS would not pursue you for your spouse’s tax obligation for that same year. If the return is filed electronically, any refund due can be divided up and directly deposited by the IRS in up to three different separate accounts. Note, however, that some financial institutions will not allow a refund for a joint return to be deposited into an individual account, so if this option is being considered, the taxpayer should check with his or her bank.