You married your spouse for better or worse—not to file your taxes jointly. According to the most recent IRS statistics, about four million taxpayers now opt for “married, filing separately” status (MFS) on their federal income tax returns—and that number grows every year.

Most couples actually come out ahead by filing jointly—especially if one spouse outearns the other by a significant amount or the couple has children. But in certain situations, each spouse reporting his/her own income and deductions on separate returns may lower the couple’s overall taxes. Situations when you should consider filing separately…

One spouse has hefty unreimbursed medical expenses. These expenses are deductible only if they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI). That threshold may be easier to reach if one of you has a lower income and has generated most of the out-of-pocket medical expenses for the year.

One spouse has a repayment plan for federal student loans driven by annual income. Borrowers with income-based repayment plans pay a percentage of monthly income toward their loans, with the goal of having the remaining debt forgiven after a term of years. MFS filers may have a lower AGI, triggering lower loan payments.

Spouses don’t want to be responsible for each other’s tax liabilities. When spouses file jointly, they both are responsible for taxes, interest and penalties on the return. If your spouse has a delinquent federal income tax, a student loan, child-support obligation or other debts, filing separately may protect any refund you might be due. Couples that are separated or in the process of divorcing may decide to shun joint returns to avoid commingling funds or post-divorce complications with the IRS. Note: Even when filing separately, each spouse must still include the other spouse’s information on his/her own tax return.

Caveats to using MFS: Filing separately can have drawbacks, so ask your accountant to run two tax calculations—one for filing a joint return…the other for two separate returns. What to watch for…

Married couples filing separately may lose valuable tax breaks, credits and deductions such as the earned income tax credit, education tax credits and deductions for student loan interest. Also, they may not be able to contribute to a Roth IRA or make deductible contributions to a traditional IRA because of strict income limits on contributions by spouses who file separately.

If one spouse itemizes deductions on Schedule A instead of taking the standard deduction, then the other must itemize as well.

Filing separately can saddle you with a substantial fee that Medicare charges high-earning beneficiaries. You make these income-related monthly adjustment amount (IRMAA) payments for Medicare Parts B and D. MFS filers have fewer IRMAA income brackets, so landing in a higher bracket can cost you hundreds of dollars more for Medicare each month.

General resource for MFS filers: IRS Publication 501, Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information (

Related Articles