A whopping 95% of married couples file taxes jointly, and for good reason: It’s almost always cheaper than filing separately. But what about the other 5% of the time? Here are a few cases where splitting up those returns might make more sense.
1. If you have income-based student loan payments
Income-based student loan payments usually key to adjusted gross income, or AGI. So your filing choice could dramatically change the size of your payment, according to Carrie Houchins-Witt, a certified financial planner in Coralville, Iowa. When you file separately, payments are based only on the borrower’s income, rather than on the couple’s joint income.
The IRS does nix certain breaks for couples who file separately, including the student loan interest deduction, but Houchins-Witt says many clients choose to file separately anyway.
“They might end up owing an extra $1,000 on their tax return, but if they’re going to save $400 a month on their student loan payments, then it makes sense to do that,” she says.
2. If you have a lot of medical expenses
Generally, only medical expenses that exceed 10% of AGI are deductible (the threshold drops to 7.5% for people 65 or older). So the higher your AGI, the higher the hurdle gets. Filing separately could lower that hurdle.
“If the spouse that has the health issues is not making a lot of money but the other spouse is making significantly more … [for] the one that’s not making as much, it might be more advantageous,” says Ben Barzideh of Piershale Financial Group in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
3. If your spouse already owes the IRS
If your spouse brought overdue taxes into the relationship, it may be worthwhile to file separately, says Samuel Jones of Capital Business Service in Napa, California. That way, the IRS won’t apply your refund to your spouse’s overdue bill.
The strategy isn’t that common, though. “Even in that particular circumstance, a married couple is usually willing to join their tax returns in order to reduce their overall burden,” Houchins-Witt notes.
4. If you’re high earners
For the 2015 tax year, the IRS limits itemized deductions for joint filers with a combined AGI over $309,900. If you and your spouse are high earners, you could lose some deductions by combining incomes. But note that when you’re filing separately, if one spouse itemizes instead of taking the standard deduction, the other must itemize, too. You’ll also have to decide which spouse gets each deduction, which can get complicated, Jones says.
5. If you don’t live in a community property state
Filing separately may not be viable if you live in Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin. Those states are community property states: Anything couples earn generally belongs to both spouses equally. Couples filing separately there each have to report half of the income both spouses earned, which nullifies most of the advantages of filing separately, Barzideh says.
6. If you’re suspicious of your spouse
If you’re getting a divorce or you aren’t sure your spouse is being upfront about tax matters, you should think about filing separately, says Bill Smith, managing director of the national tax office at financial consultancy CBIZ MHM in Bethesda, Maryland.
“It’s very important, because once you sign that joint return, you have joint liability,” Smith says. The IRS does offer relief for innocent spouses, but unless you’re willing to endure the process of getting the IRS to agree you’re innocent, you’re on the hook, he says.
Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.