Who Should File Tax Return As Married Filing Separately?

by Amanda McMullen

Married taxpayers can choose between two filing statuses when they complete their tax returns: married filing jointly or married filing separately. According to the Internal Revenue Service, most couples reap a greater tax benefit from filing jointly. However, married couples meeting certain criteria may benefit more from electing to file separate returns.

About Filing Statuses

If you were legally married as of Dec. 31 of the tax year, you must choose one of the married filing statuses. If you elect married filing jointly, you and your spouse must complete and submit one joint tax return that includes both parties' income and deductions. If you choose married filing separately, you and your spouse must complete separate returns. Your return includes only your income and deductions, while your spouse's return includes only his income and deductions. Although you can divide expenses, you cannot deduct all of the same expense on both returns. For example, if you deduct a certain health expense on your tax return, your spouse cannot deduct the same expense on his return.

Filing Separately

If only one spouse earned income, it is typically wiser to file a joint return. However, if both you and your spouse earned income, and if one of you has substantial itemized deductions that would be limited by your adjusted gross income (AGI), you may benefit from separate returns. When you file separately, each of you has a lower AGI than you would have had on a joint return, thus allowing you to claim larger deductions.

Itemized Deductions Limited by AGI

You can only deduct medical expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of your AGI.

The most common deductions subject to AGI limits are personal casualty losses, medical expenses and miscellaneous itemized expenses. You can only deduct personal casualty losses in excess of 10 percent of your AGI, and you can only deduct medical expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of your AGI. The only deductible miscellaneous expenses are those in exceeding 2 percent of your AGI.


To claim an entire deduction on a separate return, you must be able to show that you paid the expense from your own account. If you paid the expense using an account funded by both spouses, you must typically split the deduction with your spouse. Some states require spouses filing separately to split all of their earned income and deductions equally. At the time of publication, states with this requirement include Wisconsin, Washington, Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, Louisiana, Idaho, California and Arizona. Some deductions and credits, such as the child tax credit, are available only if you file jointly.

Photo Credits

  • Dynamic Graphics/Creatas/Getty Images