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Filing taxes jointly vs. separately

Key takeaways

  • You have options for your tax-filing status when you're married.
  • Generally, filing jointly saves couples money, but there are some cases when filing separately may be wiser.

Some 2.2 million couples were expected to say "I do" in 2023, according to the Wedding Report, a data-gathering trade group.1 If you're one of the newlyweds, you might be wondering what that means for your taxes.

For starters, if you changed your name, you'll need to notify the Social Security Administration ASAP so the IRS can match your new name with your Social Security number. If you changed your address, make sure the IRS knows so they can get a possible tax refund check to the right place or reach out if they need to contact you.

Next, a more complicated move: You'll need to decide whether to file your tax return as married filing jointly or married filing separately. Here's how to come to a harmonious decision.

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Options for married people when filing taxes

How you decide to file impacts:

  • What credits you'll be eligible for
  • How much of your income isn't subject to tax if you choose not to itemize deductions (aka the standard deduction)
  • Your tax rate (what percentage of your income you'll owe the government)
  • Your ability to contribute to some accounts such as Roth IRAs

There are generally 5 filing types:

  • Single
  • Married filing jointly
  • Married filing separately
  • Head of household
  • Qualifying widow/widower with dependent child

Because a person may qualify for multiple filing statuses, you could use the IRS's filing status tool to see your options. When you're married, you have only 2 options. You can file either as married filing jointly or married filing separately, starting in the tax year during which you got hitched (with a filing deadline in April the next calendar year). After getting married, you're not able to file as single again unless you are legally separated or divorced, or until the tax year following a spouse's death.

So what does each status mean when filing taxes? Here are the differences.

Single filer, aka how you likely filed before getting married

A single filer is typically unmarried and doesn't have dependents, so they don't qualify for other filing statuses, such as head of household or qualified widow/widower. You submit your tax documents alone and qualify for single-filer tax brackets, which typically have lower income thresholds than those for married people—because they're based on 1 person's income, not 2 people's. You can no longer file this way once you're married.

Married filing jointly

Married filing jointly means that you'll combine your income, deductions, and credits with your spouse's, all on 1 tax return with the same tax rate. When you file this way, both of you are responsible for any taxes, interest, or penalties due to the IRS. If you're owed a refund, you can choose to receive multiple checks, direct deposits to multiple accounts, or a combination.

Married filing separately

Married filing separately means each of you files your own tax return for a total of 2 returns. If 1 of you files this way, the other has to do the same. You're each taxed on your individual income, and you can only take deductions or credits that you qualify for individually. Still, you have to agree on whether you're both itemizing deductions (reporting individual deductions, such as mortgage interest and charitable donations to reduce taxable income) or both taking the standard deduction (deducting a preset dollar amount to reduce your taxable income). You can't mix and match.

Head of household

This filing status might be for you if you're unmarried, have a qualifying dependent, such as a child or sibling or parent you financially support, and pay more than half of your household's expenses (such as rent, groceries, and utility bills). Filing this way may net you a higher standard deduction and a lower effective tax rate than those filing as single.

Is it better to file jointly or separately?

Picking the right filing status for your situation is important because it could potentially save you money. Here's some info that could help you choose. Those who file jointly typically receive more tax benefits than those who are married filing separately. For instance:

  • Joint filers are more likely to be eligible for credits such as the Child and Dependent Care Credit.
  • Joint filers generally receive higher income thresholds for certain tax breaks, such as the deduction for contributing to an IRA.
  • Those who file separately can't claim education credits such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit—and they can't deduct student loan interest either.
  • Those filing jointly are also eligible for a larger standard deduction amount, which when combined with the above credits could equal a better tax benefit. In 2023, married filing separately taxpayers receive a standard deduction of only $13,850 each compared to the $27,700 those who filed jointly can get.2

But there are some situations where married filing separately may make more sense:

  • If you're on a student loan income-driven repayment plan, filing separately could reduce your bill since it would be based on your income alone, instead of your spouse's income and yours combined.
  • If you have a large amount of out-of-pocket medical expenses, it may be easier to reach the 7.5% threshold of your adjusted gross income to qualify for medical deductions if you only claim 1 income.
  • You might also choose to file separately if you're in the process of getting divorced or separated and want to avoid any shared liabilities.

Still not sure which is right for you?

It might make sense to consult a tax professional or run each scenario yourself to see what the outcome would be. There are a lot of factors that could impact your taxes (such as whether you own a home and can deduct mortgage interest), so deciding how to file isn't one-size-fits-all for couples. If you decide to run the numbers, take a look at your tax rates for your adjusted gross income in both scenarios.

Tax rate Married couples filing jointly Married couples filing separately
10% $22,000 or less $11,000 or less
12% $22,001 to $89,450 $11,001 to $44,725
22% $89,451 to $190,750 $44,726 to $95,375
24% $190,751 to $364,200 $95,376 to $182,100
32% $364,201 to $462,500 $182,101 to $231,250
35% $462,501 to $693,750 $231,251 to $346,875
37% $693,751 or more $346,876 or more

Extra credit: Check your withholding

If you haven't already, you and your spouse might need to adjust your withholdings (hint: the amount of federal income tax that comes out of each paycheck). This ensures that you're not giving the government too much (and getting a hefty tax refund later) or too little (and owing taxes or penalties come tax time). To figure out your withholding, use the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator which asks about your income, credits, and deductions. Then, submit a new W-4 form to your employer if necessary.

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Fidelity does not provide legal or tax advice. The information herein is general and educational in nature and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Tax laws and regulations are complex and subject to change, which can materially impact investment results. Fidelity cannot guarantee that the information herein is accurate, complete, or timely. Fidelity makes no warranties with regard to such information or results obtained by its use, and disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or any tax position taken in reliance on, such information. Consult an attorney or tax professional regarding your specific situation. 1. Tammy La Gorce, "It's a Boom Year for Brides and Grooms," The New York Times, February 4, 2022. 2. "Should You and Your Spouse File Taxes Jointly or Separately?" TurboTax, December 1, 2022. The views expressed are as of the date indicated and may change based on market or other conditions. Unless otherwise noted, the opinions provided are those of the speaker or author, as applicable, and not necessarily those of Fidelity Investments. Fidelity does not assume any duty to update any of the information.

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