How to File a Separate Return When Married

By: Tom Streissguth

Togetherness is key to a satisfying marriage, but not necessarily when you're filing a federal income tax return. In some situations, filing a separate return will allow you to save on taxes. In addition, filing separately places the responsibility of paying taxes solely on the individual who earned the taxable income. The process of completing the returns and sending them to the IRS is similar to filing when you're single or married filing jointly.

Step 1

Get a blank copy of Form 1040 or 1040A. You may not use Form 1040EZ to file separate returns. Indicate the filing status as "married, filing separately" at the top of the form. You must list your name, address and Social Security number, as well as the full name and Social Security number of your spouse.

Step 2

List your exemptions, including yourself and any children or other dependents you are claiming. You may list your spouse as an exemption only if your spouse had no income and is not claimed as a dependent on someone else's tax return. List your income as well as your deductions. If you itemize, then your spouse must also itemize -- thereby forgoing the standard deduction -- and vice versa. Filing separate returns affects deduction and credit amounts for both filers; the limit on capital loss deductions, for example, is $1,500 for each filer, rather than $3,000 as it would be on a joint return.

Step 3

Figure your tax from the tax tables provided by the IRS. In most cases, the tax rate will be higher for separate filers than for those filing joint returns. However, if you itemize deductions, you might reduce your taxable income by a greater amount than you would be able to on a joint return. The IRS limits many deductions to those expenses over a percentage of adjusted gross income. If your AGI amount is lower, then your itemized deduction amount potentially is higher.


  • Figure your total tax on both joint and separate returns to see if filing separately is really to your advantage. If you file a separate return, you may amend it to a joint return within three years of the due date of the original return.


  • You cannot take the earned income credit, or the income for child care expenses, when filing a separate return. Nor can you take education credits such as the American Opportunity credit.
  • Only one spouse can claim a child's exemption and deductions; if the parents live separately, then the exemption goes to the parent who hosts the child more than half of the year.


About the Author

Founder/president of the innovative reference publisher The Archive LLC, Tom Streissguth has been a self-employed business owner, independent bookseller and freelance author in the school/library market. Holding a bachelor's degree from Yale, Streissguth has published more than 100 works of history, biography, current affairs and geography for young readers.

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