What Is a Joint Return?

A joint return is a tax return filed with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) on the new, simplified Form 1040 (as of 2018) by two married taxpayers whose filing status is married filing jointly (MFJ) or by a widowed taxpayer whose filing status is Qualifying Widow or Widower (QW). A joint return allows these taxpayers to combine their tax liability and report their income, deductions and credits on the same joint return.

Key Takeaways

  • A joint tax return is for married couples and offers some tax advantages over being married and filing separately.
  • In order to qualify for joint filing status, you have to be married in the year you are filing jointly.
  • Filers who have recently lost a spouse are also eligible to get the tax advantage of filing jointly by filing as a qualified widow or widower.

How a Joint Return Works

A joint return permits eligible taxpayers to figure out their taxes using favorable joint return tax brackets, tax rates, and tax benefits. As a result, married couples who file a joint return generally pay a lower overall tax than married couples who file two separate returns. 

Federal Income Tax Bracket for 2019 (filed in April 2020)
  Single Married Filing Jointly Married Filing Seperately Head of Household
10% $0 – $9,700 $0 – 19,400 $0 – $9,700 $0 – $13,850
12% $9,701 – $39,475  
$19,400 – $78,950
$9,701 – $39,475 $13,851 – $52,850
22% $39,476 – $84,200 $78,951 – $168,400 $39,476 – $84,200 $52,851 – $84,200
24% $84,201 – $160,725 $168,401 – $321,450 $84,201 – $160,725 $84,201 – $160,700
32% $160,726 – $204,100 $321,451 – $408,200 $160,726 – $204,100  
$160,701 – $204,100
35% $204,101 – $510,300 $408,201 – $612,350 $204,101 – $306,175 $204,101 – $510,300
37% $510,301+  
$612,351+
 
$306,175+
$510,301+
Source: SmartAsset

Who is Eligible to File a Joint Return

To file a joint return, the taxpayers' filing status must be either Married Filing Jointly (MFJ) or Qualifying Widow/er (QW). To be eligible for the married filing jointly (MFJ) filing status, the taxpayers must be legally married to each other on or before the last day of the tax year and both must agree to file and must sign the Joint Return.

To qualify as qualifying widow/er (QW), the taxpayer’s spouse must have died in either of the two prior tax years and the taxpayer must maintain a household for a dependent child. 

Definition of Married in a Joint Return

Whether or not taxpayers are considered married on the last day of the tax year is decided by the law of the applicable state or jurisdiction. Same-sex marriages that are legally entered into are recognized for all federal tax purposes. 

Taxpayers who divorce or separate under a decree of divorce or separate maintenance that is final at any point during the tax year are considered unmarried for that entire year and cannot file a joint return.

Benefits of a Joint Return

Taxpayers who are married and not widowed must choose one of two filing statuses: married filing jointly (MFJ) or married filing separately (MFS).  Filing jointly is likely to result in less tax if one spouse earns most of the income and deductions will not be itemized. 

Filing separately may result in less tax if both spouses earn the same income and if one or both have medical expenses, casualty losses, or miscellaneous deductions since joint and separate tax rates are likely to be the same and since adjusted gross income floors will be lower. Any time both spouses earn taxable income, the tax should be figured both jointly and separately and a return filed using the status that provides the lowest tax.