Most married couples will file joint federal income tax returns, even if they opt to take only standard deductions and not itemize deductions. In some situations, however, couples elect to file separate returns. This would be the case, for instance, if there was a wide disparity in income or if one spouse does not want to share responsibility for the tax. The income disparity applies only in states without community property laws.
Basic Standard Deduction
The standard deduction for a taxpayer filing as married filing separately is $5,800 as of 2012 but is subject to cost of living changes over time. That's half the standard deduction for joint filers and the same as for single filers. Both spouses must use the standard deduction; one cannot take a standard deduction while the other itemizes.
Special Standard Deductions
Taxpayers 65 and older or partially blind qualify for higher standard deductions, even when filing separately. The deduction is $6,950 for a filer 65 or older and $8,100 for a taxpayer who also is blind or partially blind. If only one spouse files a tax return and both spouses are 65 or older and blind, the standard deduction increases to $10,400.
Credits Are Barred
Those who choose to file separately are barred from a number of other exceptions and credits. They get only half the allowable deductions for individual retirement account contributions. They also are prohibited, for instance, from claiming education or, in most cases, child or dependent care credits. A taxpayer who lived with a spouse during any part of the year but files separately may have to include up to 85 percent of any Social Security benefits as taxable income.
Higher Tax Rates
Tax brackets, the rate at which taxes are levied, also are affected by married filing separately. An individual taxpayer, for example, jumps into the 25 percent tax rate when income hits $35,350. The rate increases to 28 percent at $71,350, 33 percent at $108,725 and 35 percent at $194,175. Those are half the limits on joint income filings.
Standard Deductions Banned
You can choose married filing separately with any one of the three federal tax forms, 1040, 1040a or 1040EZ. You cannot choose standard deductions if you file for a period of less than12 months because of a change in accounting periods. Nonresident or dual-status aliens who must pay federal taxes also are prohibited from using standard deductions.
Bob Haring has been a news writer and editor for more than 50 years, mostly with the Associated Press and then as executive editor of the Tulsa, Okla. "World." Since retiring he has written freelance stories and a weekly computer security column. Haring holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.