Joint vs. separate income tax filing for married couples

Married couples can choose between filing joint or separate income tax returns. There are several key features that distinguish married filing separate from married filing joint returns. Taxpayers should carefully consider the pros and cons and then make a decision as to which suits their particular tax situation.


The married filing separate status is designed for taxpayers who wish to keep their tax accounts separate. With the joint filing status, however, the couple combines their tax information into one return.


Couples who file joint are eligible for many more credits and deductions than couples filing separately. Tax law prevents separate filers from claiming a plethora of credits including, but not limited to, the Hope Credit, Lifetime Learning Credit and the Earned Income Credit.


Couples filing separately must both take the standard deduction or must both itemise deductions.


Joint filers are both liable for the accuracy of the information listed on their return, as well as each spouse's past tax debt. If you and your spouse file a joint return and one of you owes a tax debt, then the spouse who does not owe the debt will need to file IRS Form 8379 to prevent their portion of the refund from being applied to the indebted spouse's tax debt.

Tax Rate

The tax rate on a married filing separate return is higher than on a joint return.

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About the Author

Denise Caldwell is a finance writer who has been writing on taxation and finance since 2006. Her articles appear regularly on websites such as and She has taken what she learned while working at the IRS to provide readers with helpful tax and finance tips. Caldwell received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Howard University.

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