What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Filing Jointly?

by Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, The Money Coach on January 25, 2010

in Couples and Money, Taxes

 

Couple doing paperwork with a laptop

 

Q: I Recently Married. I Currently Make More Money Than My Husband. He Wants To File Our Taxes Together. I Don’t. What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Filing Jointly?

A: Congratulations on your recent marriage. There are numerous pros and cons to filing a joint tax return and only a tax professional who examines your entire financial picture can tell you what will be best and how to maximize your finances based on your individual or combined incomes, deductions, available tax credits and so on.

Generally, speaking however, there are more benefits than drawbacks to filing a joint return.

Here are the advantages to filing a joint income tax return with your spouse:

  • You can claim more credits and deductions

Certain credits, like the Hope and Lifetime Learning credit, or the deduction for qualified educational loan interest, are available only to married individuals who file their taxes together; married people who file separately are not entitled to these credits and deductions

  • Your total taxes owed is usually less

Again, this is something that only a tax preparer can verify. But usually your total joint liability will be less, filing together, than if the two of you had filed separately.

  • It’s cheaper and less time-consuming to do one return rather than two

Getting your taxes done professionally isn’t cheap, especially since you said you earn a six-figure income. All in all, it’s less costly and faster to have a tax pro do one joint return rather than two

  • You’ll get the largest possible standard deduction, in dollar terms

The married filing joint category gets you’re the biggest standard deduction on your federal income taxes. For the 2011 tax year, the standard deduction for those filing jointly was $11,600. For married couples filing separately, the deduction was $5,800. As you can see, the deduction for tax-filers who are married filing jointly is exactly twice that of the deduction granted to those married persons filing separately. But remember, the standard deduction reduces the income that is subject to tax. So dropping that overall number can help in other ways, like making you eligible for various credits.

I know that the two of you are currently working. But if one of you is ever unemployed in the future, you’ll be able to keep up with some of your retirement contributions. That’s because under federal law a married person filing a joint return can contribute to an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Such contributions are no allowed for married persons who file separate returns.

On the flip side, here are the main disadvantages to filing a joint tax return:

  • You’re both on the hook

Whenever you sign a joint return, you’re both taking responsibility for those numbers and attesting to the veracity of everything on those forms. So one time you wouldn’t want to file a joint return is if you think your spouse is doing anything shady financially or is being less-than-truthful about reporting his income to the government.

  • Your refund may have to pay certain delinquent debts of your spouse

A person who files a joint return with their spouse may have to watch any refund check due get devoured by a government agency if their spouse owes debts like child support or have defaulted student loans. Again, if your spouse fits into one of these categories, then it’s probably best to use the married filing separately category.

  • Your deductions for medical expenses will be limited

Filing jointly isn’t a good idea when one party has big medical bills because you can only write off a certain percentage of those medical costs – namely, those costs that exceed 7.5% of your income.

  • You won’t be able to claim a lot of miscellaneous deductions

This probably isn’t a huge problem for most people, as you can classify various deductions appropriate. But if you have a lot of random deductions that don’t fit neatly into any established category, just be aware that these deductions are limited when you file jointly.

  • What about the “Marriage Penalty”?

There is one final “drawback” to discuss. In the past, you may have heard of married couples being subjected to the so-called “marriage penalty.”

That’s the difference in taxes that a couple pays versus the smaller amount the two individuals would have paid as two single persons.

While this was a real occurrence, it happens far less frequently now, thanks to changes in the tax law that took effect in 2003.

To eliminate the marriage penalty, the government essentially made equal the standard deductions that could be claimed by two singles and one married couple.

All in all, most experts agree that it’s usually financially advantageous for a married couple to file a joint tax return, instead of filing separately.

But the only real way to know with certainty whether that wisdom applies in your case is to have a qualified tax specialist prepare your returns both ways – both individually and jointly – and then you can both make the best determination about the optimal tax filing status to choose.

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