Filing taxes: Single vs. married tax rate
Filing jointly as a married couple is often cheaper, but is it right for you? Find out here.
Married couples can file their federal income tax returns either jointly or separately. In most cases, it's better for spouses to file jointly, as they can benefit from tax breaks. But sometimes, there can be advantages to submitting their tax returns separately. Either way, if you’re married, your status will be slightly different to a single, non-married filer. So here we’ll delve into the ins and outs of single vs. married tax rates.
Single vs. Married: Filing Options and Differences
All taxpayers have to indicate their tax filing status on their Form 1040—the IRS tax form used to calculate personal federal income tax, and/or their Form W-4—the Employee's Withholding Certificate you fill out for your employer so they know how much to withhold from your paycheck.
On a Form 1040, you have to check one of the following options:
Married filing jointly
Married filing separately
Head of household
Qualifying surviving spouse
Here, 'Married filing separately' isn’t the same as 'Single'; only unmarried people can claim single tax filing status.
If you’re newly divorced, you might wonder which option to choose. The rule is that you can’t check the 'Single' box on a Form 1040 unless you have received legal separation status or divorced before the last day of the tax year (December 31).
The same applies to the 'Married filing jointly' box — you must have been legally married before the last day of the tax year. This goes for same-sex marriages as well. Simply put, if you are married by law in the United States or by a foreign government, you are legally required to file as married.
This leaves two filing options for spouses: 'Married filing separately' or 'Married filing jointly'.
If you want to file your income and your marital partner’s income in a single return, you should opt to file jointly. This is the preferred option for most married couples as it saves time and, often, money.
If you file separately, you and your spouse will complete individual returns.
As well as saving you time completing two returns, filing jointly with your spouse will place you in a different tax bracket with higher thresholds for tax rates as well as larger standard deductions compared with filing separately.
On a Form W-4, you must choose from one of the following options:
Single or married filing separately
Married filing jointly or Qualifying surviving spouse
Head of household
In this form, 'Single' and 'Married filing separately' are the same.
What’s the difference between filing jointly and filing separately as a married couple?
Filing separately or jointly as a married couple can greatly impact how much tax you pay and the deductions you can claim. The table below summarizes the key fiscal differences between the two tax statuses for 2022/23.
|Married filing separately||Married filing jointly|
|Portion of income not subject to tax (2022)||$12,950||$25,900|
|Portion of income not subject to tax (2023)||$13,850||$27,700|
|Income taxed at the lowest marginal tax rate of 10% (2022)||$10,275||$20,550|
|Income taxed at the lowest marginal tax rate of 10% (2023)||$11,000||$22,000|
|Standard deduction (2022)||$12,950||$25,900|
|Standard deduction (2023)||$13,850||$27,700|
|Capital loss deduction limit||$1,500||$3,000 total (not each)|
Can You File Singly if You're Married?
As mentioned above, on a Form 1040, you can't file your taxes singly if you're married. However, you can file separately from your spouse, so you must check the box 'Married filing separately.'
On a Form W-4, however, you can check 'Single/Married filing separately,' in which case you are effectively filing as a single person even if your civic status is married.
The Pros and Cons of Filing Jointly as a Married Couple
Below we'll go through some of the advantages of filing jointly, the potential drawbacks of filing separately, and some cases where filing separately is beneficial. That way, you can decide what's best for you and your spouse.
Advantages of Filing Jointly
Filing a joint tax return with your spouse often puts you in a favorable financial position. In fact, joint filers receive larger standard deductions meaning they can deduct larger sums from their income when calculating taxable income.
Here are some of the multiple tax credits you are eligible for as a married couple:
Earned Income Tax Credit
American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Education Tax Credits
Exclusion or credit for adoption expenses
Joint filers also benefit from higher income thresholds for taxes. We'll go into this in more detail below.
Disadvantages of Filing Your Tax Returns Separately
Generally speaking, couples who file separately receive fewer tax benefits. In fact, filing separate tax returns usually involves paying more tax.
For example, in 2023, taxpayers who file separately receive a standard deduction of $13,850, while those who file jointly receive almost double that: $27,700.
Additionally, separate filers are often limited to a smaller IRA contribution deduction and cannot take the deduction for student loan interest.
When is Filing Separately a Better Option?
Typically, filing jointly is the better option for married couples regarding tax. However, there are some rare instances where it can be beneficial for married couples to file separately.
Some spouses with un-reimbursed business expenses, job-search costs, union dues, or tax-preparation fees may find they are no longer eligible for miscellaneous deductions once their joint income increases.
Also, individuals with out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of their adjusted gross income (AGI) but don't exceed that percentage for their joint AGI may find their taxes are reduced by filing separately and receiving the medical deduction.
For couples planning on becoming legally separated or going ahead with a divorce, it's often better to file separately to avoid post-divorce complications with the IRS. Plus, spouses who doubt the legality or ethics of their partners' finances may prefer to keep their taxes separate.
Tax Brackets for Single Filers and Married Filers
Below are the federal income tax brackets for 2023:
|Single||Married filing jointly||Married filing separately|
|10%||$0 ~ $11,000||$0 ~ $19,900||$0 ~ $22,000|
|12%||$11,000 ~ $44,725||$19,901 ~ $81,050||$22,001 ~ $89,450|
|22%||$44,726 ~ $95,375||$81,051 ~ $172,750||$89,451 ~ $190,750|
|24%||$95,376 ~ $182,100||$172,751 ~ $329,850||$190,751 ~ $364,200|
|32%||$182,101 ~ $231,250||$329,851 ~ $418,850||$364,201 ~ $462,500|
|35%||$231,251 ~ $578,125||$418,851 ~ $628,300||$462,501 ~ $693,750|
Understanding Your Withholding Status
A key thing that changes if you marry is your withholding status.
Withholding refers to the money that an employer takes out of an employee's wages to pay directly to the government.
You may be exempt from withholding if you have a low income. This is known as having no tax liability. But the threshold for this is different for married joint filers than those who are married but filing separately and single people.
For singles or married couples filing separately, an employee's yearly income must be lower than $13,850 to qualify for no tax liability. For a married couple filing jointly, it rises to $27,700.
Choosing How to File Your Return
To sum up, there are many differences between filing your taxes individually—as a single or married person—or jointly as a married couple. Federal income tax, withholding thresholds, plus the credits and deductions you're eligible for, are all liable to change depending on your filing status.
To find out what would work best for you and your spouse, you might want to consider seeking the input of a financial advisor. At Unbiased, we can connect you with a finance expert focused on your unique financial needs in minutes.
Senior Content Writer
Rachel is a Senior Content Writer at Unbiased. She has nearly a decade of experience writing and producing content across a range of different sectors.