Married couples have the option to file a joint tax return or separate tax returns. In general, a joint return results in lower overall tax and provides tax benefits not available to other filing statuses. Separate returns, however, limit your income tax liability to the tax and penalties from your own return, not your spouse's return.
The first income tax return you file as a married couple designates the election that you will use. However, you can switch between joint and separate statuses according to certain rules and within certain time limits.
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Married Filing Jointly
If you and your spouse agree to file a joint return, you can elect the "Married Filing Jointly" filing status. Report all of your combined income and deductions, even if one spouse had no income or deductions. This status may provide higher standard deductions, tax benefits not available to other filing statuses and a lower overall tax owed to the Internal Revenue Service. You and your spouse will be held individually and jointly accountable for any tax and penalties owed from the combined return.
Married Filing Separately
You and your spouse can file separate returns and elect the "Married Filing Separately" filing status if you do not agree to file a joint return. In general, this status will result in a combined tax due to the IRS that is higher than the "Married Filing Jointly" status and may prevent you from taking advantage of special tax benefits only provided to those who elect "Married Filing Jointly." You are only held accountable for the tax and penalties due on your return, not on your spouse's return.
Switching from Separate to Joint Returns
You have three years from the due date of the first return you filed separately to switch to a joint return. Change your filing status by filing form 1040X and submitting an amended return. This can either be done by filling out a paper form 1040X and mailing it, or if you electronically filed in tax years 2019 and 2020, you can file an amendment electronically as well.
If your situation deals with any foreign income, you will also need to refer to and fill out Form 8938 to specify the source of the income. The IRS website has specific instructions here on how to fill out a 1040X.
Special Situations for Switching
There are special situations for switching from joint returns to separate returns. Although most of the time, it is advantageous to file jointly, past tax situations may be a good reason to consider filing separately.
If you or your spouse have reason to believe your return will be garnished for reasons such as unpaid child support or unpaid taxes, it might be a good idea to file separately. If you have lost a spouse during the tax year but remarried within the same year, you would still file jointly with your new spouse, but you would file your deceased partner's taxes under separate status.