Married Filing Jointly

Filing a joint return with your spouse

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Married taxpayers have the choice between filing a joint tax return or a separate tax return. The Married Filing Jointly filing status provides more tax benefits than married filing separate filing status, but taxpayers will need to weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves which is the best filing status.

You and your spouse can file a joint tax return if you are legally married. You are considered legally married if you are married on the last day of the year in question.

In order to file jointly, both you and your spouse must also agree to file a joint tax return, and both must sign the return.

The IRS advises that, "If you and your spouse decide to file a joint return, your tax may be lower than your combined tax for the other filing statuses. Also, your standard deduction (if you do not itemize deductions) may be higher, and you may qualify for tax benefits that do not apply to other filing statuses" (from the "Married Filing Jointly" section of Publication 501).

How Married Filing Jointly Impacts the Tax Return

A person's filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which schedule of tax rates are used when calculating the federal income taxes. The 2017 tax rates for the married filing joint status are as follows:

2017 Ordinary Tax Rates for Married Filing Jointly Filing Status
[Tax Rate Schedule Y-1, Internal Revenue Code section 1(a)]

If taxable income isabcdefg
overbut not overTaxable incomeMinusSubtract (b) from (a)Multiplication amountMultiply (c) by (d)Additional AmountAdd (e) and (f)
$0$18,650 $0 × 10% $0 
18,65075,900 18,650 × 15% 1,865.00 
75,900153,100 75,900 × 25% 10,452.50 
153,100233,350 153,100 × 28% 29,752.50 
233,350416,700 233,350 × 33% 52,222.50 
416,700470,700 416,700 × 35% 112,728.00 
470,700 --  470,700 × 39.6% 131,628.00 

What's a Joint Tax Return?

By filing a joint tax return, both spouses report all their income, deductions, and credits on one tax return. Both spouses must sign the return, and both spouses accept full responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the information reported on the tax return. If the tax is unpaid, each spouse is held personally responsible for the payment.

If the tax return is audited by the IRS, each spouse will be held responsible for providing documents to demonstrate the accuracy of the tax return. In other words, each spouse is held jointly and severally liable for the taxes filed on a jointly filed tax return.

The IRS cautions, "Both of you may be held responsible, jointly and individually, for the tax and any interest or penalty due on your joint return. This means that if one spouse does not pay the tax due, the other may have to. Or, if one spouse does not report the correct tax, both spouses may be responsible for any additional taxes assessed by the IRS. One spouse may be held responsible for all the tax due even if all the income was earned by the other spouse" (from Publication 501).

The IRS may grant relief from joint liability for taxes through innocent spouse relief, separation of liability, or equitable relief. Refer to Publication 971, Innocent Spouse Relief, for additional information about these tax relief programs.

Deceased Spouse

Even if your spouse dies during the year, you are still able to file a joint return as if they were still alive.

The IRS explains, "If your spouse died during the year, you are considered married for the whole year and can choose married filing jointly as your filing status" (from Publication 501).

In the following years, you can file as qualifying widow, as head of household, or as a single taxpayer, depending on your circumstances.

Filing Joint versus Separate Returns

Filing a separate return provides relief from joint liability for taxes. This means that each spouse will be responsible for the accuracy of their separate tax return and for the payment of their separate tax liability. However, married taxpayers who file separately are not eligible for several tax deductions and credits, and may have higher tax rates. While it is usually advantageous to file a joint return, there are situations when filing separately is preferred. Some situations in which filing separately is preferred include:

  • The tax on the separate tax returns, when combined, is the same or very close to the tax on a joint return. In this case, filing separately achieves the goal of maintaining separate responsibility for the accuracy of the return and payment of tax.
  • One spouse is unwilling or unable to consent to filing a joint tax return.
  • One spouse knows or suspects the other spouse is omitting income or overstating deductions, and the spouse does not want to be held personally responsible for the other spouse's tax.
  • The spouses live apart or are separated but not yet divorced, and they wish to keep their finances as separate as possible.
  • The spouses live apart and one spouse would qualify for head of household.

In some situations, deciding to file separately rather than jointly is a mathematical decision based on analyzing the combined separate tax liabilities compared to the joint tax liability.

In other situations, deciding to file separately is a decision based on whether each spouse wants to accept full responsibility for the accuracy and payment of tax that comes with a joint filing.

For some couples, there are non-tax reasons for filing separately, such as keeping their finances separate from each other.

Same-Sex Married Couples

Same-sex married couples are allowed to file a joint tax return using the married filing jointly status. Or if they choose, they can file separate returns using the married filing separately status.

Same-sex married couples are considered legally married as long as they were married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage ( Revenue Ruling 2013-17).

Domestic Partners and Civil Unions

Taxpayers who are in a registered domestic partnership or a civil union are not considered to be married, and so will need to file their tax returns as unmarried persons: using either the single or head of household filing status. In Revenue Ruling 2013-17, the IRS states their position, "For Federal tax purposes, the terms 'spouse,' 'husband and wife,' 'husband,' and 'wife' do not include individuals (whether of the opposite sex or the same sex) who have entered into a registered domestic partnership, civil union, or other similar formal relationship recognized under state law that is not denominated as a marriage under the laws of that state, and the term 'marriage' does not include such formal relationships."

Furthermore, domestic partners and persons in a civil union who reside in a community property state may need to allocate income and deductions between each partner. This applies to domestic partners in the community property states of Washington, Nevada, and California.

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