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Publication 17
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170777

Married Filing Separately(p20)

rule
You can choose married filing separately as your filing status if you are married. This filing status may benefit you if you want to be responsible only for your own tax or if it results in less tax than filing a joint return.
If you and your spouse do not agree to file a joint return, you may have to use this filing status unless you qualify for head of household status, discussed next.
You may be able to choose head of household filing status if you live apart from your spouse, meet certain tests, and are considered unmarried (explained later, under Head of Household). This can apply to you even if you are not divorced or legally separated. If you qualify to file as head of household, instead of as married filing separately, your tax may be lower, you may be able to claim the earned income credit and certain other credits, and your standard deduction will be higher. The head of household filing status allows you to choose the standard deduction even if your spouse chooses to itemize deductions. See Head of Household, later, for more information.
Deposit
You will generally pay more combined tax on separate returns than you would on a joint return for the reasons listed under Special Rules, later. However, unless you are required to file separately, you should figure your tax both ways (on a joint return and on separate returns). This way you can make sure you are using the filing status that results in the lowest combined tax. When figuring the combined tax of husband and wife, you may want to consider state taxes as well as federal taxes.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170781

How to file.(p21)

rule
If you file a separate return, you generally report only your own income, exemptions, credits, and deductions on your individual return. You can claim an exemption for your spouse if your spouse had no gross income and was not the dependent of another person. However, if your spouse had any gross income or was the dependent of someone else, you cannot claim an exemption for him or her on your separate return.
If you file as married filing separately, you can use Form 1040A or Form 1040. Select this filing status by checking the box on line 3 of either form. You also must enter your spouse's full name in the space provided and must enter your spouse's SSN or ITIN in the space provided unless your spouse does not have and is not required to have an SSN or ITIN. Use the Married filing separately column of the Tax Table or Section C of the Tax Computation Worksheet to figure your tax.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170782

Special Rules(p21)

rule
If you choose married filing separately as your filing status, the following special rules apply. Because of these special rules, you will usually pay more tax on a separate return than if you used another filing status that you qualify for.
 
  1. Your tax rate generally will be higher than it would be on a joint return.
  2. Your exemption amount for figuring the alternative minimum tax will be half that allowed to a joint return filer.
  3. You cannot take the credit for child and dependent care expenses in most cases, and the amount that you can exclude from income under an employer's dependent care assistance program is limited to $2,500 (instead of $5,000 if you filed a joint return). For more information about these expenses, the credit, and the exclusion, see chapter 32.
  4. You cannot take the earned income credit.
  5. You cannot take the exclusion or credit for adoption expenses in most cases.
  6. You cannot take the education credits (the American opportunity credit and lifetime learning credit) or the deduction for student loan interest.
  7. You cannot exclude any interest income from qualified U.S. savings bonds that you used for higher education expenses.
  8. If you lived with your spouse at any time during the tax year:
    1. You cannot claim the credit for the elderly or the disabled, and
    2. You will have to include in income more (up to 85%) of any social security or equivalent railroad retirement benefits you received.
  9. The following credits are reduced at income levels that are half those for a joint return:
    1. The child tax credit, and
    2. The retirement savings contributions credit.
  10. Your capital loss deduction limit is $1,500 (instead of $3,000 if you filed a joint return).
  11. If your spouse itemizes deductions, you cannot claim the standard deduction. If you can claim the standard deduction, your basic standard deduction is half the amount allowed on a joint return.
  12. Your first-time homebuyer credit is limited to $4,000 (instead of $8,000 if you filed a joint return). If the special rule for long-time residents of the same main home applies, the credit is limited to $3,250 (instead of $6,500 if you filed a joint return).
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000252682

Adjusted gross income (AGI) limits.(p21)

rule
If your AGI on a separate return is lower than it would have been on a joint return, you may be able to deduct a larger amount for certain deductions that are limited by AGI, such as medical expenses.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170784

Individual retirement arrangements (IRAs).(p21)

rule
You may not be able to deduct all or part of your contributions to a traditional IRA if you or your spouse were covered by an employee retirement plan at work during the year. Your deduction is reduced or eliminated if your income is more than a certain amount. This amount is much lower for married individuals who file separately and lived together at any time during the year. For more information, see How Much Can You Deduct in chapter 17.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170786

Rental activity losses.(p21)

rule
If you actively participated in a passive rental real estate activity that produced a loss, you generally can deduct the loss from your nonpassive income, up to $25,000. This is called a special allowance. However, married persons filing separate returns who lived together at any time during the year cannot claim this special allowance. Married persons filing separate returns who lived apart at all times during the year are each allowed a $12,500 maximum special allowance for losses from passive real estate activities. See Limits on Rental Losses in chapter 9.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170788

Community property states.(p21)

rule
If you live in Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, or Wisconsin and file separately, your income may be considered separate income or community income for income tax purposes. See Publication 555.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170789

Joint Return After 
Separate Returns(p21)

rule
You can change your filing status by filing an amended return using Form 1040X.
If you or your spouse (or both of you) file a separate return, you generally can change to a joint return any time within 3 years from the due date of the separate return or returns. This does not include any extensions. A separate return includes a return filed by you or your spouse claiming married filing separately, single, or head of household filing status.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170790

Separate Returns After 
Joint Return(p21)

rule
Once you file a joint return, you cannot choose to file separate returns for that year after the due date of the return.
taxmap/pub17/p17-013.htm#en_us_publink1000170791

Exception.(p21)

rule
A personal representative for a decedent can change from a joint return elected by the surviving spouse to a separate return for the decedent. The personal representative has 1 year from the due date of the return (including extensions) to make the change. See Publication 559, Survivors, Executors, and Administrators, for more information on filing a return for a decedent.