Tax Filing Statuses: Married Filing Jointly

The Pros and Cons of Filing a Joint Married Return

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​The Internal Revenue Code doesn't require that married couples must file joint income tax returns. They have the option of filing separate married returns, but ​filing jointly usually provides more tax relief. 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."

If you're unsure what's best for your personal situation, try preparing your taxes both ways to determine which option makes the most financial sense. You also might want to keep a few things in mind ​as you make your decision.

​When Can You File a Joint Return With Your Spouse?

You're eligible to file a joint tax return if you're considered legally married. This means you were married on the last day of the tax year.​ Even if you filed for divorce during the year, the IRS still considers you married if you haven't received a decree or judgment dated Dec. 31 or earlier. You can't be legally separated by court order, either, although it's not mandatory that you live together.

Both you and your spouse must also agree to file the joint return and you both must sign it.

How Married Filing Jointly Impacts Your Tax Rate 

A person's filing status determines which standard deduction amount and which schedule of tax rates are used.

 These are the rates and brackets for the married filing joint status in the 2016 and 2017 tax years.

2016 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$18,550 $0 × 10% $0 
18,55175,300 18,550 × 15% 1,865.00 
75,301151,900 75,300 × 25% 10,377.50 
151,901231,450 151,900 × 28% 29,527.50 
231,451413,350 231,450 × 33% 51,801.50 
413,351466,950 413,350 × 35% 111,828.50 
466,951 --  466,950 × 39.6% 131,588.50

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 

The Risk of Filing a Joint Married Return

Both spouses must report all their income, deductions and credits on one return when they file jointly. Both accept full responsibility for the accuracy and completeness of the return. So what happens if the tax isn't paid or if there are errors?

If the tax is unpaid, each spouse is held personally responsible for the payment. Each spouse is responsible for providing documentation to prove the accuracy of the tax return if it's audited by the IRS. In other words, each spouse is held jointly and severally liable. 

Here's what the IRS has to say about it: "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."

The IRS will sometimes grant relief from joint liability through innocent spouse relief, separation of liability or equitable relief, so see a tax professional for help if you find yourself in this situation.

Filing a Separate Married Return

Filing a separate return provides relief from joint liability for taxes. Each spouse is solely responsible for the accuracy of his or her separate tax return and for the payment of the separate tax liability. But married taxpayers who file separately lose their eligibility for quite a few tax deductions and credits.

They often have higher tax rates.

Still, filing separately can be more advantageous in a few situations:

  • When the taxes due on separate tax returns are combined, the total is the same as or very close to the tax due on a joint return. In this case, filing separately achieves the goal of maintaining separate responsibility for the accuracy of the returns and the payment of tax without any additional liability.
  • One spouse is unwilling or unable to consent to filing a joint tax return.
  • One spouse knows or suspects that the other spouse is omitting income or overstating deductions, and that 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. They want to keep their finances as separate as possible.
  • The spouses live apart so at least one spouse would qualify for head of household filing status if they didn't file together.

In some situations, deciding to file separately is a mathematical decision based on analyzing the combined separate tax liabilities compared to the joint tax liability. In others, the decision is based on whether each spouse wants to accept full responsibility for the accuracy and payment of the tax that comes with a joint filing.

A Deceased Spouse

You can still file a joint return with your spouse if she died during the tax year. According to the IRS, "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." Going forward, you can file as a qualifying widow(er), as head of household or as a single taxpayer, depending on your circumstances.

Same-Sex Married Couples

Same-sex married couples are allowed to file joint tax returns using the married filing jointly status, or they can file separate returns using the married filing separately status.

Taxpayers who are in registered domestic partnerships or civil unions are not considered married, however. They must file their tax returns using either the single or head of household filing status. The IRS states in Revenue Ruling 2013-17, "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."