When you file an income tax return, your tax filing status determines the tax brackets you face as well as whether or not you qualify for certain tax deductions and credits. Most married couples choose to file jointly, because for most people this filing status affords more tax breaks than if they file separately. You can choose to itemize your tax deductions if you file a joint return.
Itemized Deduction Basics
The Internal Revenue Service lets you claim "itemized deductions" on your return, which include a variety of common expenses you may incur during the year. Common itemized deductions include home mortgage interest, real estate tax, home office expenses and donations to charity. If you file a joint return, you pay taxes on your combined income and you can claim all the itemized deductions that you and your spouse had during the year.
Choosing to Itemize
While you can itemize deductions when filing a joint return, you may not always benefit from itemizing. If you itemize your deductions, you forfeit the right to reduce your taxable income by a standard deduction provided by the IRS. The standard deduction for joint filers is $11,900 for the 2012 tax year, which is twice as much as the standard deduction for single taxpayers and married people filing separate returns. If the sum of all of your itemized deductions is greater than $11,900 as a joint filer, you stand to save money by itemizing. Otherwise, you are better off taking the standard deduction.
Filing a joint return grants you higher income limits for certain tax deductions. For example, contributions you make to an individual retirement account are tax deductible when you are covered by a retirement plan a work, but only if your income falls below certain limits. IRA contributions are fully deductible for joint filers that have $92,000 or less in taxable income, while single filers must have $58,000 or less. Similarly, a deduction of up to $4,000 for college tuition and fees is available to joint filers who have taxable income of $160,000 or less, while single filers need to have less than $80,000 to be legible for the deduction. You can claim the IRA deduction and tuition deduction regardless of whether you itemize your deductions.
You can choose to itemize your deductions even if you file a separate tax return. If you itemize deductions on a separate return, however, your spouse cannot use the standard deduction on her tax return: either both must itemize, or both must use the standard deduction. Separate filers also face strict income limits on certain tax deductions. For instance, IRA contributions are not tax deductible if your taxable income is $10,000 or more and you file a separate return. You cannot claim the deduction for college tuition and fees if you file a separate return, either.
Gregory Hamel has been a writer since September 2008 and has also authored three novels. He has a Bachelor of Arts in economics from St. Olaf College. Hamel maintains a blog focused on massive open online courses and computer programming.