Married filing separately for tax purposes refers to a filing status for a couple in the U.S. who has been married as of the end of a tax year (December 31). In filing their income taxes, married couples can choose between the following:
Married couples can receive distinct tax treatment if they file their income taxes together under married filing jointly status.
With a married filing jointly status, married couples can record their respective earnings, deductions, benefits, credits, and tax exemptions on a single tax return. It is beneficial in cases where one spouse earns significantly more income than the other since they can utilize their spouse’s tax benefits, deductions, exemptions, or credits, etc. to reduce their tax payable.
However, if both spouses earn a similar amount of income, the advantages of filing jointly are not as pronounced, and it may even be more beneficial to file separately.
Personal Income Taxes Explained
Personal income tax refers to the tax that governments collect on the income earned by individual taxpayers. The government uses the taxes as its main source of revenue to fund public projects and public services and to settle obligations. Personal income tax is applied to all of an individual’s sources of income that include, but are not limited to:
1. Employment income
2. Commission income
3. Property income or passive income (Rent, interest, dividends, and royalties)
4. Capital gains income (Disposal of real assets, sale of financial assets)
All individual taxpayers who are subject to a country’s taxes are legally required to file an income tax return that determines the taxes payable that is owed to the government. Many developed countries operate with a progressive income tax system where individuals who earn a higher income pay a higher tax rate. The progressive income tax system is in place to balance inequality and redistribute wealth to lower-income individuals.
In the United States, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is the institution that is responsible for collecting taxes from individuals and enforcing tax laws. The Canadian institution that is responsible for collecting taxes is known as the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA).
Married Filing Jointly Explained
In the United States, there are five general tax filing status alternatives for individuals when they file their tax returns:
2. Married filing jointly
3. Married filing separately
4. Head of household
5. Qualifying widow
Married couples are required to file as either “Married Filing Jointly” or “Married Filing Separately.” It should be noted that even if a married couple files separately, they are still required to include their spouse’s information on their tax return.
Married filing jointly allows two married individuals to combine their income tax filing. In such a case, both spouses are equally responsible for the combined tax return. It means that if one of the spouses engages in tax fraud or tax evasion, then both spouses are equally liable for the penalties that are incurred. However, this may be omitted if one of the spouses can prove that they did not know of the activity and did not benefit from it.
Married filing separately allows two married individuals to file their income tax returns separately as if they were single. It removes the combined liability that arises from filing jointly.
Married Filing Jointly vs. Filing Separately
As mentioned earlier, married filing jointly may come with tax advantages that reduce the total amount of tax payable. However, it also may be beneficial to file separately as well.
For example, in some cases, a married couple’s combined income may push their aggregate income into a higher tax bracket and end up increasing their tax payable. In such a case, the increased taxes owed from being in a higher tax bracket outweigh the potential tax benefits and deductions that are applied to a married couple filing jointly.
Joint tax returns may benefit from a larger tax refund or a lower tax liability, but it is not guaranteed. Since tax laws in developed countries, such as the U.S and Canada, comprise very complex systems and intricacies, it is recommended to consult a tax professional who can determine if there is a benefit in either filing jointly or filing separately.
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