Married Filing Jointly

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 under married filing jointly status, couples can record their respective incomes, exemptions and deductions on the same tax return. Married filing jointly is 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.

BREAKING DOWN '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 tax due, both are equally liable for the penalties unless the other spouse claims he or she was not aware 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. When filing a tax return as married filing jointly, a married couple uses the same tax return to report income, deductions, credits and exemptions.

Married Filing Jointly vs. Filing Separately

When using married filing jointly status, your total combined tax liability is often lower than the sum of spouses' individual tax liabilities, if they were filing separately. This is so 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.

A joint tax return will 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 filing 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.

In addition, 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 like 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.