What Is Married Filing Jointly?

Married filing jointly refers to a filing status for married couples that have wed before the end of the tax year. When filing taxes under married filing jointly status, a married couple can record their respective incomes, deductions, credits, and exemptions on the same tax return.

Married filing jointly is often best if only one spouse has a significant income. However, if both spouses work and the income and itemized deductions are large and very unequal, it may be more advantageous to file separately.

Key Takeaways

  • Married filing jointly is an income tax filing status available to any couple that has wed as of Dec. 31 of the tax year.
  • It is best used by couples that have one spouse who earns significantly more money than the other.
  • It allows a couple to use only one tax return, but both spouses are equally responsible for the return and any taxes and penalties owed.

Should Married Taxpayers File Together?

Understanding Married Filing Jointly

When using married filing jointly filing status, both spouses are equally responsible for the return and the taxes. If either one of the spouses understates the taxes due, both are equally liable for the penalties, unless the other spouse is shown to be unaware of the mistake and did not benefit from it. Taxes can get pretty technical and tricky, so if a couple is having trouble determining tax liability, talk to an experienced tax preparer.

Married Filing Jointly vs. Filing Separately

When using married filing jointly status, your total combined tax liability is often lower than the sum of your and your spouse’s individual tax liabilities if you were filing separately. This is because the standard deduction may be higher, and married filing jointly status may qualify for other tax benefits that don’t apply to the other filing statuses. (Watch the video for some specifics on these potential benefits.)

A joint tax return will often provide a bigger tax refund or a lower tax liability. However, this is not always the case. A couple may want to investigate their options by calculating the refund or balance due for filing jointly and separately and use the one that provides the biggest refund or the lowest tax liability.

You can use the married filing jointly status if both of the following statements are true:

  1. You were married on the last day of the tax year. In other words, if you were married on Dec. 31, then you are considered to have been married all year. If you were unmarried, divorced, or legally separated (according to state law) on Dec. 31, then you are considered unmarried for the year. There is an exception to this rule for the death of a spouse.
  2. You and your spouse both agree to file a joint tax return.

A married couple can still be considered unmarried for tax purposes if they meet certain conditions, including having lived apart for the last six months of the tax year.

Also, if you were not divorced or legally separated on Dec. 31, you are considered unmarried if all of the following apply:

  • You lived apart from your spouse for the last six months of the tax year (not including temporary absences for reasons such as business, medical care, school, or military service).
  • You file a separate tax return from your spouse.
  • You paid over half the cost of keeping up your home during the tax year.
  • Your home was the main home of your child, stepchild, or foster child for more than half of the tax year.