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It’s not the date night you were expecting, right?
Well, don’t feel bad. Every married couple has to do their taxes. Even the most perfect Nicholas Sparks couple has to fill out their Form 1040 at some point. But what does married filing jointly mean? And how is it different than married filing separately? Let’s dig a little deeper and find out.
What Is Married Filing Jointly?
Married filing jointly (or MFJ for short) means you and your spouse fill out one tax return together.
Now, don’t get us wrong: You don’t have to file jointly. You could file separately. But it’s rare (like four-leaf clover rare) to find yourself in a situation in which filing separately is better than jointly. We’ll talk more about those situations below.
Who Can File Jointly?
If you just got married, congrats! But you may not be able to file jointly just yet.
You need to have been married before January 1 of this year to file last year’s taxes jointly. So if you got married on December 31 of last year or earlier, you can file together. But if you got married on or after January 1 of this year, you must file separately this tax season.
Don’t let taxes stress you out. A tax pro is the way to go!
How Do You File Jointly?
Filing your taxes jointly isn’t that different from filing as single or head of household. You and your spouse still have to report your income and list deductions and credits. The biggest difference is that you’ll choose married filing jointly as your filing status instead of the others.
But if this is your first tax season as husband and wife, you’ll need to take care of a couple of things first:
If this is your first tax season as husband and wife, you’ll need to take care of a couple of things first.
1. Notify the IRS of any address changes.
If you moved, be sure to notify the IRS of your address change by filing Form 8822.
2. Tell your employer you’ve moved.
Don’t forget to let your employer know of any changes to your name and/or address so your W-2 arrives on time and in good order.
3. Report any name changes.
Did you take your spouse’s last name? Well, make sure you tell the Social Security Administration so the name next to your Social Security number matches the name on your tax forms. If you don’t, the IRS will hold your tax refund until you resolve the issue. Fill out Form SS-5 and file it at your local Social Security office.
Now, if you don’t have time to change your name before the tax deadline, you can file using your maiden name. But make sure you take care of the name change by next year.
Can You File Jointly if You’re Widowed?
Yes. If your spouse passed away during the past tax year, you can file jointly for that year. After that, you have to file as a qualifying widow or widower, head of household or single filer.
Married Filing Jointly vs. Married Filing Separately
As we said before, the IRS doesn’t force you to file jointly. You can always file separately. Married filing separately is a filing status for married couples who, for whatever reason, decide, “Meh, we don’t want to do our taxes together.” As a married couple, you should merge your finances, but there may be a tax nuance or two that could cause you to consider filing a separate return.
When do you want to file separately?
Basically, our rule of thumb is this: File separately when it saves you money. Whichever filing status puts more money in your pocket (or takes less money out of it), that’s the filing status we recommend.
It’s rare that filing separately will mean more money for you. But there are some circumstances in which this is the case, like these:
1. Your spouse isn’t paying their taxes.
Your spouse may play “catch me if you can” with the IRS and not pay their taxes. We don’t recommend this but, in that case, you should definitely file your taxes.
2. You don’t know if your spouse is honestly reporting their income or deductions.
Remember: When you file jointly, you’re both held responsible for the accuracy of your tax returns. If your spouse has intentionally reported false numbers, the IRS will see you as a partner in crime.
3. You or your spouse want to claim medical debt as a deduction.
If you or your spouse had medical bills last year, you may be able to deduct some of it. How much you can deduct depends on how much money you make.
Basically, the more income you make, the less you can deduct from your medical expenses. And sometimes you make so much you can’t deduct anything. So if your spouse makes a lot more than you do and you file jointly, your medical deduction will be a lot less than if you file separately.
Figuring out which way works best can be mathematically intense. If you’re not sure, take your case to a tax pro and let them do the math for you to be safe.
What are the advantages of married filing jointly?
More likely than not, you’re better off filing jointly. Here are a few reasons why:
1. You have a higher standard deduction.
If you file separately, you only get a $12,000 standard deduction. Filing jointly doubles that amount to $24,000. Yeah, that’s right. We said $24,000! Most tax filers can substantially lower their taxable income with that.
2. You get more tax credits.
Tax credits are like gift cards from the IRS—they apply to your final tax bill and reduce it dollar-per-dollar. Call it a late wedding present (or an anniversary gift), but the IRS gives more tax credits to married couples filing jointly than to couples filing separately.
If you’re married filing jointly, then you may qualify for some of these tax credits:
- Earned Income Tax Credit
- Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit
- Adoption Credit
- Credit for the Elderly and Disabled
- American Opportunity Credit
- Lifetime Opportunity Credit for Higher Education Expenses
Now, just to be clear: You can get these credits if your filing status is married filing jointly, single or head of household. But if you’re married filing separately, you won’t be eligible.
3. You can save time.
We can’t overstate this. When you file jointly, you only have to fill out one tax return—not two. So you’re saving time. And if you’re using a tax pro, filing separately could cost you more money.
4. Filing jointly is less complicated.
When you file separately, you have to follow certain rules that can make your day a little thornier. For example, only one of you can claim your child as a dependent. On top of that, you’ll have to agree on whether you’ll take the standard deduction or itemize. Yep. No cherry picking. If your spouse wants to itemize, then you have to itemize.
Want to Spend Less Time on Taxes and More Time With Your Spouse?
Every marriage hits a speed bump every now and then, but taxes don’t have to be one of them. If you have a complicated tax situation or you’re not sure whether you should file jointly or separately, working with a tax pro is likely your smartest option. And if you’re looking for a trustworthy tax expert in your area, we can help!
We’ve vetted some of the best tax pros in the country. They have years of experience and, believe it or not, they love this stuff. Our pros can talk taxes all day! They have a thorough understanding of the tax changes this year and how they affect you and your spouse.
The sooner you connect with a pro, the sooner you can check taxes off your to-do list and get back to more, well, romantic things.