Can I File Separately if I Am Married & Filed Jointly in Previous Years?

Joint married tax returns usually save spouses tax dollars, but sometimes there are good reasons to file a separate return instead. If you file separately, you have no tax liability for your spouse's income or for errors on his return. You can file either a separate or joint return when you're married – you just can't file as a single taxpayer.

Amending Returns

Your tax returns from previous years don't lock you into filing that way forever. You can file elect to file a separate return even if you and your spouse have always filed jointly. The rules are different for amending a previous return, however. If you file jointly, and if you then have a change of heart and decide to file separately instead, you can only amend your return to reflect this new filing status until the tax due date, typically April 15.

Income and Deductions

If you elect to file separately, you need only claim your own income, and you can claim your own deductions. You and your spouse can't claim a dependent deduction for the same child in the same year, however, and you can only claim an exemption for your spouse if he had no income. You can't use Form 1040EZ if you file separately – you're limited to the 1040 or 1040A. Income reporting requirements work a little differently if you live in one of the nine community property states. Your separate return must report half your combined monthly incomes, even if you didn't personally earn that much.

Standard Deduction

You must also negotiate the standard deduction with your spouse if you decide to file separately because your returns must match in this respect. If your spouse decides he wants to itemize his deductions, Internal Revenue Service rules require that you do so as well. If you both claim the standard deduction, it's half what it would be if you filed jointly -- $5,950 each rather than $11,900 as of 2012.

Another Option

If you and your spouse live separately, this may give you another filing option even if you're still legally married. You might possibly qualify as head of household if you have a dependent who lives with you most of the year. The rules for head of household filing status are complex, so if you think you might qualify, speak with a tax professional. Filing as head of household is much more advantageous than filing a separate married return. For example, your standard deduction jumps from $5,950 to $8,700, and you can claim it even if your spouse itemizes deductions on his own return.

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About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.

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