When should married couples consider filing taxes separately?

1 min readLast updated March 8, 2024by Unbiased team

Take a look at scenarios when it might be better for married individuals to file their taxes separately instead of jointly, bearing in mind that each couple's financial situation and tax goals are unique.


  • Married couples can choose to file their tax returns jointly or separately.

  • Some couples benefit more from filing their taxes separately than jointly. 

  • Filing separately is usually recommended when one spouse has significant debt, like a student loan. 

  • A financial advisor can ensure that you optimize your tax returns and ensure you’re not paying more tax than you should.  

What does it mean to file separately when married? 

Married couples can file their annual tax returns jointly or separately.  

Each tax filing method has pros and cons, but let's first look at what filing jointly vs separately entails. 

Many married couples opt for the straightforward joint filing method because of its simplicity and benefits.  

Joint filing is a status for married couples to combine their incomes, deductions, and tax credits on a single tax return.

This filing status often results in lower tax rates and allows for eligibility for certain tax credits.  

Alternatively, filing taxes separately when married requires each person to report their income, deductions, and credits independently.  

Couples who file this way may do so if one spouse has significant deductions or liabilities.

However, separate filing when married may result in limitations on certain tax credits and may even lead to higher overall taxes in some cases.  

Additionally, if you live outside of the US and are paying expat taxes, the gross income threshold for married couples filing separately is much lower than for those filing jointly. 

Married Filing Separately should not be confused with a Head of Household status.

A Head of Household filing status is for unmarried individuals who financially support a household, including dependents.

This status often provides more favorable tax rates and standard tax deductions than Married, filing separately or filing as a single.

To qualify for Head of Household status, a person must be unmarried or at least considered unmarried on the last day of the tax year.

Additionally, they must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home and have a qualifying person living with them for more than half the year. 

When should married couples consider filing taxes separately?  

Under certain circumstances, couples should consider filing taxes separately when married, as doing so can yield financial benefits tailored to their unique situations.  

If you're wondering if it is better to file jointly or separately, ask yourself the following questions: 

1. Are you or your partner self-employed?

If one spouse is self-employed, filing taxes separately when married may be more beneficial.

Self-employment often involves complicated income structures, and filing taxes separately can prevent business losses from reducing the other spouse's income. 

For example, if one partner operates a business that incurs significant losses due to an economic downturn, but the other spouse has a steady income, filing taxes separately helps maintain the latter partner's tax benefits. 

2. Are you or your partner struggling with student loan debt? 

The average student loan debt in the United States for 2024 is $37,090, which is a significant sum.  

Therefore, couples grappling with student loan debt may benefit from filing taxes separately when married. This filing status can decrease income-driven repayment plan amounts, especially if one spouse has a significant obligation. 

For instance, if one partner has a large student loan and opts for an income-driven repayment plan, filing separately can lead to lower monthly repayments, helping to relieve the financial burden. However, filing jointly will increase the combined income, reducing the chances of repayment relief options.

3. Do you or your partner have itemized deductions? 

If one spouse has many tax-deductible expenses, such as charitable donations or medical costs, it might be better for them to file taxes separately.

Doing so can help that spouse take full advantage of those deductions. 

In essence, the decision between filing jointly vs separately should align with the specific financial dynamics of the couple, optimizing the tax outcomes based on their unique circumstances. 

Filing jointly vs separately: what are the pros and cons?  

Before deciding if you should file taxes jointly or separately as a couple, consider the pros and cons of each. 

Pros of filing jointly:

  • The couple may qualify for lower tax rates. 

  • They could be eligible for certain tax credits such as the Earned Income and Child Tax Credit. 

  • The filing process may be more straightforward. 

Cons of filing jointly:

  • Joint and several liability comes into play, where both spouses are collectively responsible for taxes owed, potentially exposing one partner to the other's financial obligations. 

  • Joint filing could limit deductions for certain expenses. 

  • Combining incomes can lead to a higher tax liability

Pros of filing separately 

  • Filing separately allows for independent liability, meaning each spouse is responsible for personal tax obligations. 

  • It preserves financial independence, especially if one spouse has significant deductions or liabilities. 

Cons of filing separately

  • Couples may miss out on certain tax credits available only to joint filers. 

  • They could face higher tax rates. 

  • Independent filers may encounter restrictions on their contributions to some retirement accounts. 

Need expert help with your taxes?

When filing taxes, married couples must decide whether it’s better to file jointly or separately.  

Unbiased can match you with an SEC-regulated financial advisor who can offer expert financial advice about the intricacies of tax and the IRS.

This will ensure that you file correctly in your state and avoid costly penalties.

Find a financial advisor perfectly suited to your needs today


Unbiased team

Our team of writers, who have decades of experience writing about personal finance, including investing and retirement, are here to help you find out what you must know about life’s biggest financial decisions.