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Are couples, either married or in domestic partnerships, required to file their taxes jointly? Are there any benefits or drawbacks to filing separately?


Married couples can choose to file joint or separate tax returns. As of a few months ago, based on an Internal Revenue Service ruling, that also applies to same-sex couples who were married in states that recognize such unions, regardless of where they live. So a couple who were married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriages but who live in a state that does not can file a joint return or separate returns. Whether it makes sense for married couples to file separately is another issue. It’s generally considered a bad idea because certain tax breaks are reduced or eliminated for separate filers, and tax rates are higher. In Publication 501, the IRS comes right out and tells taxpayers that “you usually pay more tax on a separate return than if you use another filing status you qualify for.”

Among the tax concessions that couples filing separately forfeit are the earned income credit; the American opportunity credit and lifetime learning credit for education expenses; the deductions for student loan interest and tuition and fees; the exclusion of interest income on certain U.S. savings bonds used for higher education expenses, as well as, in most cases, the exclusion or credit for adoption expenses. Also, the amounts that can be deducted for contributions to retirement plans, like individual retirement accounts, are reduced. One last consideration: Even if spouses aren’t filing jointly, they need to be on the same page; both must either take the standard deduction or itemize.

-Conrad de Aenlle