Is the Married-Filing-Separately Tax Status Right for You?

Image shows: five icons highlighting different reasons to file a separate tax return from your spouse while a woman's hand signs a 1040-C tax return in the right-hand corner. Text says: "when should you file a separate return from your spouse? you lack spousal content, there's an income disparity, you want to qualify for an income-driven repayment plan to lower federal student loan payments, you're getting divorced or are separated, you have liability concerns, a joint return wouldn't lower your tax bill or increase your refund"

The Balance / Caitlin Rogers

Key Takeaways

  • You may want to choose the married-filing-separately tax status if you and your spouse can't agree to file a joint tax return.
  • It may also be the right tax filing status if you're getting divorced, you have liability concerns, a joint return won't help you lower your tax bill, you need to qualify for a student loan repayment plan, or you lack spousal consent.
  • Many tax breaks are off-limits or less beneficial for married taxpayers who file separate returns.
  • Married parents who file separate tax returns can’t both claim their children as dependents, which could significantly impact the amount of taxes owed.
  • Typically, married couples who file jointly tend to pay lower taxes or get an increased refund.

You may want to choose the married-filing-separately tax status if you and your spouse have two very different incomes, you're getting divorced, you have liability concerns, a joint return won't help you lower your tax bill, or you lack spousal consent.

Married filing separately is a tax status for couples in which each person submits a tax return on their own, with their own income, deductions, and exemptions. There are generally more benefits when couples file as married filing jointly. But filing separately may make sense in some cases. Understand the ins and outs of this tax status to know if it's right for you.

What Is the Married-Filing-Separately Status?

Married filing separately is a tax status that you can choose to file if you do not want to be responsible for any of your spouse's income or taxes. If you're married and file a separate tax return, you’re only responsible for that return and your own tax payments. You can't be held legally responsible for any errors or omissions on your spouse's return, and your tax refund will be sent to the account you request on your return if you're due one.


The income spans for tax brackets aren't as generous if you use the married-filing-separately status. You'll be disqualified from claiming many tax deductions and credits as well. More on this below.

When Should You File a Separate Return While Married?

There are times when you must file separately while you're married, and others when it might simply make the most sense for your personal situation.

You Lack Spousal Consent

Both spouses must sign the tax return when you file jointly, so you must file a separate return if your spouse can't or won't do so because they're unwilling or unable to consent to filing a joint return. An exception to this rule exists if one spouse dies during the tax year. You can still file jointly for that year if you choose, but you can file separately as well.

You Have Liability Concerns

Both spouses are "jointly and severally liable" for the accuracy of a jointly filed tax return. They're also jointly and severally liable for any resulting taxes that are due on that return. The IRS can collect tax debts and penalties from each of you. Both of you are also equally responsible for any errors or omissions on the return, although there are some exceptions to the rule.

Filing separately is one way to limit your liability if you don't trust your spouse. Perhaps your spouse has outstanding debts, such as back taxes or past-due child support, and you don’t want your refund to be seized to pay them.


An exception to liability exists if one spouse can prove a case for innocent spouse relief, proving that they had no knowledge of the other's misstatement of tax information. It would be unfair to hold them liable for any debt or penalties resulting from those misstatements.

You’re Applying for Certain Student Loan Repayment Plans

Another reason you may wish to file a separate return is to qualify for an income-driven repayment plan to lower your federal student loan payments. The Income-Based and Income-Contingent Repayment Plans and the PAYE Plan allow married borrowers who file separately to have their payments determined based on their incomes alone.

However, the increased tax liability may be larger than the amount you'll save through the student loan payment plan, so be sure to calculate whether filing separately is worth it.

A Joint Return Wouldn’t Lower Your Tax Bill or Increase Your Refund

You might prefer to file separately if you both work and earn about the same amount of money. That could put you in a higher tax bracket, although you'll want to make sure that all the other benefits of filing jointly don't outweigh that consideration.

Filing separately doesn't present any real drawback if the combined taxes that are due on two separate tax returns are the same as, or very close to, the tax that would be due on a joint return. You'll receive protection against liability, even if you don't have any particular reason to worry about that.

One Spouse Has Significant Medical Expenses

You can deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses if they exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income (AGI). That's a high threshold to reach, and it should be easier if the person with those expenses compares them to their own lower AGI. In that case, it might make sense to file taxes separately.

You’re Getting Divorced or Are Separated

Filing jointly may not be in your best interest if you're headed for divorce. You can avoid a joint tax bill or a joint refund by filing separately, in addition to skirting those liability issues. Your refund will be directly deposited into an account you select if you're expecting one.


You may qualify to file as head of household if you have custody of your children and live separately from your spouse.

How Married-Filing-Separately Status Impacts Taxes

Tax Credits

Married-filing-separately taxpayers are prohibited from claiming some tax credits, including:

Married-filing-separately taxpayers may also have a harder time qualifying for the full child tax credit. Only one parent can claim the child as a dependent, and the credit amount will be based on income thresholds that are half of the amounts allowed for a married couple who files jointly.

Deductions and Exclusions

Some tax deductions can become out of reach simply because both spouses must claim the standard deduction when they file separately, or they must both itemize their deductions.

The income phaseout threshold for the IRA deduction is lower if at least one of you is covered by a retirement plan at work. Some other deductions and exclusions are off-limits for married-filing-separately filers, including:

Claiming Dependents

No two taxpayers can claim the same dependent unless they're married and file a joint return. Married taxpayers who are parents and who file separately must decide which of them is going to claim their child as a dependent for various tax breaks.

If you and your spouse file separately and you have two children, each of you can claim one child. Or one of you could claim two or three if you have several children, leaving the other dependent(s) for the other spouse.

The IRS will award the dependent to the parent with whom the child lived more often during the tax year if the agency must decide the issue. It will give the dependent to the parent with the higher adjusted gross income by default if parents live together.

Tax Rates for Married Taxpayers Filing Separately

Your filing status also affects the tax rate you pay based on your income. The following marginal tax rates are in effect for those who are married but file separate returns for the 2022 tax year:

2022 Tax Brackets for Married Taxpayers Filing Separately
Rate Income
10% $0 to $10,275
12% $10,276 to $41,775
22% $41,776 to $89,075
24% $89,076 to $170,050
32% $170,051 to $215,950
35% $215,951 to $323,925
37% More than $323,925

The married-filing-separately brackets are the same as those that apply to single taxpayers, with one major exception. The 35% tax bracket covers more income for single taxpayers. Those who are married and file separately hit the highest tax bracket of 37% at incomes that are close to $200,000 less than single filers.

The difference is even bigger when compared to married taxpayers who file jointly. The highest rate of 37% applies to incomes of $647,850 or more for married couples who file jointly for the 2022 tax year (and it's $693,750 for tax year 2023).

Tax bracket income thresholds (not the rates) are indexed for inflation, so they tend to increase a little from year to year.

2023 Tax Brackets for Married Taxpayers Filing Separately
Rate Income
 10%  $0 to $11,000
 12%  $11,001 to $44,725
 22%  $44,726 to $95,375
 24%  $95,376 to $182,100
 32%  $182,101 to $231,250
 35%  $231,250 to $346,875
 37%  More than $346,875

Can You Change Your Filing Status Once You’ve Filed?

Married couples should decide whether they want to file jointly or separately when they prepare their tax return for the year, but they can change their minds and switch from two separate returns to a single joint return within three years from the due date of the original return, including extensions.


You must submit an amended tax return, Form 1040-X, if you want to change your filing status after filing your tax return.

On the other hand, if you have filed a joint return, you can change your minds and switch to two separate returns only by the tax deadline for that tax year.

What About Filing as Head of Household?

You or your spouse—or perhaps both of you—might qualify for the head of household filing status if you're living apart. This is much more advantageous than filing a separate married return, but it comes with a lot of qualifying rules.

You can't have lived together at any time during the last six months of the year if you’re not divorced yet. Your home must have been the primary residence of at least one of your children for more than half the year, or the primary residence of another dependent for the entire year. Some family members, such as your parents, don't have to live with you to qualify as your dependents, but you must have paid for more than half the cost of maintaining their household elsewhere.

You must pay for more than half the cost of your own household if your dependent lives with you.


You can claim tax deductions and credits that would otherwise be unavailable to you if you’re eligible to file as head of household rather than married filing separately.

Married Filing Separately in Community Property States

Couples who reside in one of the nine community property states must follow special rules for allocating income and deductions when they file separately. The community property states are California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Nevada, Idaho, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Community property and income are jointly owned by both spouses. For example, if your spouse earns $80,000, half of that is attributable to you regardless of the fact that you didn't personally earn it. Each spouse must report half the total community property income on their separate tax return, even if one never worked a day all year.

Deductions are also split in half, with each spouse reporting half the deduction on their separate return. These rules apply even if just one spouse lives in a community property state.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Does filing separately affect taxes on Social Security benefits?

Social Security benefits may only be taxed up to 50% if you and your spouse don't live together, are making under $34,000, and plan on filing separately. Benefits can be taxed up to 85% if you have lived together or have more than $34,000 in income.

Is there a penalty for filing separately?

There is no penalty for using the married-filing-separately status, but there are tax breaks that you won't be eligible for if you don't file jointly. Most tax professionals will tell you that this status is the least advantageous for those involved.

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  2. IRS. "Signing the Return."

  3. IRS. "Innocent Spouse Relief."

  4. Federal Student Aid. "Do You Have Questions About the Different Types of Income-Driven Repayment Plans?"

  5. IRS. "Topic No. 502 Medical and Dental Expenses."

  6. IRS. "Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information." Page 7.

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  12. IRS. "Publication 555 (03/2020) Community Property."

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