The Internal Revenue Service typically permits taxpayers to choose between itemizing deductions and taking a standard deduction. Taxpayers with qualified expenses that do not exceed the standard deduction may choose not to itemize. Married couples face another choice -- whether to file separately or jointly. Although the choice between filing separate returns or a joint return typically makes little difference on the standard deduction, the choice can affect other deductions.
If you choose not to itemize your deductions, you can take the standard deduction. The amount changes periodically, but for the 2011 tax year, it was $11,600 for married, filing jointly if neither spouse was over 65 or legally blind. This amount was exactly twice the standard deduction allowed for a married individual filing separately, which was $5,800. Single filers were also allowed a standard deduction of $5,800.
Standard Deduction — Over 65 or Blind
If either or both spouses were over the age of 65 or considered legally blind, they were entitled to a higher standard deduction. If one spouse was either at least 65 years of age or legally blind, joint filers could take a standard deduction of $12,750. If one spouse qualified on both counts, or if each spouse met one of the qualifications, the standard deduction was $13,900. For couples with one spouse who was both legally blind and over 65 and the other spouse was either legally blind or over 65, the standard deduction was $15,050. If both parties were legally blind and over the age of 65, the standard deduction was $16,200.
Ineligibility for Standard Deduction
Although most married taxpayers are eligible for the standard deduction, there are exceptions. You cannot take the standard deduction if you have changed your tax year from a calendar year to another basis or vice versa, and you are filing a return for the abbreviated period. If you are a dual-status or nonresident alien at any point during the tax year, you cannot take the standard deduction for that year. However, nonresident aliens who are married to resident aliens or U.S. citizens as of Dec. 31 may decide they want the IRS to treat them as a U.S. resident for income tax purposes; they are then permitted to take the standard deduction.
Advantages of Joint Returns
Even if you are eligible to take the standard exemption, the IRS recommends that married couples figure their returns separately and compare the results to a joint return to determine the best choice. However, you should note that you could lose some of the credits you might have been eligible for if you file separately. You normally lose the dependent and child care credit, and if you participate in your employer’s care assistance plan, your excludable limit drops to $2,500 from $5,000. Typically, you lose the ability to take the adoption expense credit or exclusion. Your ability to take deductions and credits for education expenses is severely limited unless you file a joint return. For example, you cannot take either the Lifetime Learning or American opportunity credits, deduct interest on student loans, exclude interest earned on savings bonds used to finance education or deduct tuition and fees.
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