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When Does it Make Sense for Married Taxpayers to File Separately?

A reader writes in, asking:

“Under what circumstances does it make sense for a married couple to file separate tax returns rather than file jointly?”

In most cases, it doesn’t make sense. That is, in most cases, a married couple will end up paying more total tax by filing separately than by filing jointly. There are, broadly speaking, two reasons for this.

Reasons Not to File Separately

First, by filing separately, you’re made ineligible for a number of tax breaks, including (but not limited to):

  • The student loan interest deduction,
  • The American Opportunity Credit,
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit,
  • The earned income credit,
  • The premium tax credit (with a possible exception for victims of domestic abuse),
  • The child and dependent care credit (with a possible exception for married people who live in separate homes), and
  • The adoption credit (also with a possible exception for married people who live in separate homes).

The second reason has to do with tax brackets. For married couples in which one spouse earns significantly more than the other, filing jointly allows the income from that higher-earning spouse to stay in a lower tax bracket. Conversely, if the couple files separately, the low-tax-bracket space of the spouse with no/low earnings will go unused.

Reasons to File Separately

There are four general types of reasons for filing separately.

The first reason is simply that the couple is in fact separated (though still married) and filing jointly simply wouldn’t be feasible.

A second, less common reason for filing separately is that one of the spouses has to publicly disclose his/her tax returns for some reason, and the couple wants to keep as much information private as possible (by keeping it off the publicly-disclosed return).

A third reason for one spouse wanting to file separately is to avoid being made jointly liable for any amounts due on the other spouse’s return. (If this is a concern for you, you would do well to discuss the issue with a tax attorney.)

Finally, there are some uncommon cases in which filing separately can actually result in tax savings. These cases tend to be the result of the couple wanting to take better advantage of a particular deduction that is reduced by a certain percentage of their income. For example, the itemized deduction for medical expenses is reduced by 10% of your adjusted gross income (7.5% if you’re age 65 or over). As a result, if one spouse has a lot of medical expenses in a given year, it can sometimes make sense to file separately so that the amount by which the deduction is reduced is a smaller figure (because it’s based on just that spouse’s income rather than the couple’s combined income).

Other deductions that could provide a similar motivation to file separately would include:

  • The itemized deduction for casualty losses, which is reduced by 10% of your adjusted gross income, and
  • Miscellaneous itemized deductions that are (collectively) reduced by 2% of your adjusted gross income (e.g,. unreimbursed employee expenses and tax preparation fees).

Of note: If you’re claiming one of these itemized deductions, rather than simply filing separately, it’s important to do the math both ways (i.e., filing separately and jointly) to see which works better, as the disadvantages of separate filing that we discussed above often outweigh the additional savings you might get from being able to claim a larger itemized deduction.

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Investing Blog Roundup: Vanguard Interviews Jonathan Clements

When I first started reading about personal finance, Jonathan Clements (writing for The Wall Street Journal at the time) was one of my favorite writers. After a several-year hiatus, Clements began writing for WSJ again this year. You can find a collection of his articles here.

This week, in an interview with Vanguard, Clements argues that today is a great time to be an investor:

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Why I Prefer Vanguard LifeStrategy Funds to Target Retirement Funds

A reader writes in, asking:

“I enjoyed the Bogleheads piece. [Editor's note: He's referring to this recent Money article by Penelope Wang.] I noticed that there was a recommendation for the Target Retirement Funds. I wonder if you’d run your preference for the LifeStrategies Growth Fund by me one more time?”

As a tool for investors in general, I prefer the LifeStrategy funds primarily due to their naming convention (i.e, the use of the names Growth, Moderate Growth, Conservative Growth, and Income rather than date-based names). When presented with a menu of LifeStrategy funds, an investor is forced to actually think about his/her risk tolerance in order to decide which fund is the best fit. In contrast, with the Target Retirement funds, there’s an easy alternative: just pick based on the date.

The problem here is that, while time to retirement is a factor that affects your risk tolerance, it is just one of several factors. And, in many cases, it isn’t even the most important factor.

For example, I know many Gen-Y investors who are chronically underemployed, yet who have nonetheless managed to scrape together some money to invest in a Roth IRA. Despite the fact that they’re a long way from retirement, they need to use conservative allocations in their IRAs, because there’s a significant chance that they’ll have to tap into the money in the not-so-distant future, due to income instability and small emergency funds.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are retirees whose day-to-day needs are completely satisfied via pensions and/or Social Security. Despite the fact that they’re already retired (i.e., time to retirement = zero), an aggressive allocation could be quite reasonable, should they desire to use one.

And even if investors are told to pick a target date fund based on the fund’s underlying allocation rather than the date in the fund’s name, there’s still going to be an anchoring effect involved. In other words, investors will probably not adjust as much as they should in order to account for their personal risk tolerance. For example, a conservative investor planning to retire in 2040 might be best served by the allocation of the 2015 fund. Yet because he’s been told that the 2040 fund is typical for somebody his age, he only adjusts slightly — by using the 2035 fund for instance, despite the fact that it’s still much too risky for his needs.

With regard to why I personally am using the LifeStrategy Growth Fund rather than a Target Retirement fund, the answer is that my wife and I don’t, as of right now, plan to shift our allocation toward bonds over time. Rather, as we near (and enter) retirement, we expect to simply put money into inflation-adjusted lifetime annuities (including Social Security) until we’ve reached the point where our basic needs are satisfied via very safe sources of lifetime income. With money that’s left over, the plan is to continue using a stock-oriented allocation.

All of that said, I’m still a big fan of Vanguard’s Target Retirement funds. I don’t like them quite as much as the LifeStrategy funds, but I still think they’re fantastic in that they can provide a diversified, hands-off portfolio at a very modest price.

Investing Blog Roundup: Tips from the Bogleheads

This week Penelope Wang of Money has a great write-up about the Bogleheads community, as well as the new edition of The Bogleheads Guide to Investing that was released this week. Wang writes:

“Wouldn’t it be great to get advice on managing your money from a knowledgeable friend—one who isn’t trying to rake in a commission or push a bad investment? That’s what the Bogleheads are all about.”

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Helpful Social Security References

From time to time, I hear from people who have visited their local SSA office (or spoken with an SSA employee on the phone) to execute a legitimate Social Security strategy, only to have the SSA employee (incorrectly) tell them that they cannot do such a thing.

Generally, the best thing you can do in such a situation is to respectfully direct the SSA employee to an applicable reference in the Code of Federal Regulations or Program Operations Manual System (i.e., the SSA’s internal employee manual). What follows are a few such references that may be helpful in getting things moving in your favor.

File and Suspend

These days, most SSA employees are familiar with the ability to voluntarily “suspend” your benefits after filing for them. Every once in a while, however, a person will be told (incorrectly) that he cannot suspend his retirement benefit at full retirement age, simply because he started receiving that benefit prior to full retirement age. CFR 404.313 (in particular, the bolded sentence) indicates very explicitly that that’s not the case:

“You earn a [delayed retirement credit] for each month for which you are fully insured and eligible but do not receive an old-age benefit either because you do not apply for benefits or because you elect to voluntarily suspend your benefits to earn DRCs. Even if you were entitled to old-age benefits before full retirement age you may still earn DRCs for months during the period from full retirement age to age 70, if you voluntarily elect to suspend those benefits.”

Filing a Restricted Application

When you are eligible for two different benefits, but choose to apply for only one of them (in order to allow the other one to continue growing), you are making what is known as a “restricted application.” Some SSA employees, however, will tell you that if you file for one benefit, you are automatically forced (“deemed”) to file for the other benefit as well.

This rule about deemed filing comes from CFR 404.623, which answers the question, “Am I required to file for all benefits if I am eligible for old-age and husband’s or wife’s benefits?” The Code section is rather lengthy to quote in its entirety, but the relevant point is that it states that if you file for a retirement (i.e., “old-age”) benefit or spousal benefit prior to your full retirement age, you are automatically presumed to have filed for the other benefit as well.

The key things to note here (and to bring to the SSA employee’s attention) are that:

  • This only applies when you file for something prior to FRA, and
  • This doesn’t apply to widow/widower benefits at all. (That is, if you’re eligible for a retirement benefit and a widow/widower benefit, you can file a restricted application for one or the other — even prior to full retirement age.)

6-Month Retroactive Lump-Sum

If you file for your retirement benefit after full retirement age, you have the option to essentially backdate your application by up to 6 months. In such a case, you will receive a lump-sum for those 6 months of benefits, and your ongoing monthly benefit will be smaller, as if you’d claimed it 6 months earlier than you actually did.

The applicable reference here is CFR 404.621, starting with paragraph (a)(2), which states:

“If you file an application [...] you may receive benefits for up to 6 months immediately before the month in which your application is filed. Your benefits may begin with the first month in this 6-month period in which you meet all the requirements for entitlement.”

Important note: CFR 404.621 also states that you cannot backdate an application to a point earlier than your FRA.

Retroactive Lump-Sum to Date of Suspension

If you suspend your benefits at any point in time, you can essentially change your mind later (but prior to age 70), and ask to retroactively “unsuspend” your benefits. For example, you could file and suspend at your full retirement age of 66, then at age 69, after being diagnosed with a condition that makes your life expectancy much shorter than you previously thought, you could ask to a) have your benefits unsuspended and b) receive a lump-sum for the months between 66 and 69. Going forward, your benefit would then be calculated as if you had never suspended at all (i.e., you would not get the delayed retirement credits for delaying from 66 to 69).

The ability to change your mind with regard to a suspension of benefits comes from POMS GN 02409.130, which states that your effective month for reinstatement of benefits (after a voluntary suspension) can be, “the current month, a future month or any past month during the suspension period.”

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Investing Blog Roundup: Ignoring the News

This blog was originally started to share the concept that you don’t have to follow market news in order to achieve investment success. (That is, it’s OK to be “oblivious” to it.) This week, MarketWatch writer Chuck Jaffe shares a similar message:

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