Can We Lower Our Taxes by Filing Separately?

In some cases, yes. While most couples who are married file a return together, combining their income into a single amount to be taxed. Filing a joint return is generally simpler for couples, and most of the time will produce a lower tax bill than if the couples filed their returns separately. However, there are some cases where splitting your income may make financial sense.

Filing Separately

Married couples do have the option to file separate returns, however there are specific rules to follow.

Spouses must use the same method of deduction. For example, if one spouse choses to itemize, the other partner must as well. And on that note, you’ll have to determine which spouse gets to take which deduction, which can become quite a headache. Additionally, some credits and deductions, such as the credit for child and dependent care expenses, Earned Income Tax Credit, Adoption Credit, education credits and student loan interest deduction, are not available to couples who file separate returns.

Remember: Filing separately is not the same as filing Single. Only unmarried taxpayers are entitled to use the Single status, as there are different tax brackets available to those who file single as opposed to married, filing separately.

That said, there are a few cases where being married and filing a separate return may lower your taxes. To determine if filing a separate return is better for you, consider the following information.

Student Loans: If you are on an income-based repayment plan, opting to file separately can reduce your monthly bill, as they generally use your adjusted gross income to calculate your payment. Filing separately means that only the borrower’s income is taken into account, rather than the total household income. That can be incredibly beneficial to a person paying student loans, so it may be worth the consideration to file separately. For example, if you would save $200 a month on your loan payments, paying a one-time fee around $500 in April to file separately at tax time would end up saving you throughout the year.

High Earners: If both you and your spouse are high earners, it may be beneficial to file separate returns, considering many deductions and credits phase out at certain AGIs. For example, in 2016, joint filers are limited to itemized deductions at a combined AGI of more than $311,300 ($313,800). Filing separately may keep you out of the phase out limits, and essentially lower your tax bill as you’ll be able to claim certain deductions and credits that don’t apply if you file together. High earners should calculate their return both by filing jointly and separately and determine which saves the couple the most.

Medical Expenses: You are able to deduct medical expenses anyway, but only the amount of those expenses that exceeds 10% of your AGI. If you are over age 65, you’re limited by only 7.5% of your AGI. Regardless, filing separately may allow you deduct more expenses as your AGI will be lower. Be warned: the threshold is going to rise in 2017 to 10% if Congress does not intervene.

For example, you and your spouse are under 65 and one of you had around $9,000 in medical expenses during the tax year. If your combine income is $100,000, then 10% is $10,000 which means that you aren’t eligible to deduct any of your medical expenses if you file jointly.

However, if you opt to file separately, you may be able to deduct these expenses. If you have an AGI of 75,000 and your spouse $25,000 then you can deduct any expense over $7,500 as that is 10% of your AGI. You will have saved yourself $1,500. If the medical bills belong to your spouse, you’ll get an even bigger savings, as 10% would be $2,500, meaning a deduction of $6,500 if you file separately.

Complicated Tax History: If one of you has overdue taxes that were brought into the marriage, you may want to file separately. Filing a joint return can entitle the IRS to use one spouse’s return to offset the amount due by the other spouse. Although, you may want to consider just paying for your spouse’s history, as the liability can add up over the years, especially since filing separately brings a higher tax bill overall.

Additionally, if you amidst a divorce, or think your spouse isn’t being honest with their taxes, filing separately may also be beneficial. Filing a joint return means joint liability, and while “innocent spouse” relief exists, it’d difficult to convince the IRS

Community Property States

You should be aware that in some states, regardless of whether you’d pay less by filing a separate return, state laws may put a damper on your plan. If you live in a community property state – Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin – property typically is considered to belong to both spouses equally. Couples who file separately in these state are required to report half of the income their spouses earned, which negates the advantages of filing separately.