Do You File Jointly if Your Spouse Did Not Have Reportable Income?

by Herb Kirchhoff

    If you are married, you can file a joint tax return with your spouse even if only one of you had income. There is nothing in the tax rules requiring that a husband and wife both have income in order to file jointly. Although federal law doesn’t permit same-sex married couples to file jointly as of 2012, most opposite-sex married couples with only one income will be better off filing jointly.

    One good reason for filing a joint return even though only one of you had income is a lower tax bill. The 2011 federal tax tables at IRS.gov show that filing jointly can reduce your tax bill considerably when your spouse had no income. For instance, if your net taxable income after exemptions and deductions was $75,000, your tax bill would be $11,006 if you filed a joint tax return with your non-earning spouse. If you were married filing separately with $75,000 in net taxable income after exemptions and deductions, your tax would be $15,042.

    If you don’t itemize your deductions, you will double your standard deduction amount by filing jointly. If you are married filing separately, your standard deduction as of 2011 is $5,800. A spouse with no income, on the other hand, has no tax return to file and gets no deduction. By filing a joint return, the standard deduction doubles to $11,600, even though only one of you had income. Further, if you file a joint return, you get an exemption for your non-earning spouse as well as yourself, which as of 2011 reduces your taxable income by $3,700.

    There are also retirement plan benefits to filing jointly. The non-earning, joint-filing spouse can open an IRA in her own name and make contributions to it even though she had no income, which can represent additional tax savings. IRS rules dictate that a married couple filing separately loses access to tax credits available to couples who are married filing jointly, including the earned income credit, child and dependent care credit, adoption expense credit and the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits. Other credits, such as the child tax credit, are cut in half for marrieds filing separately.

    Although there can be some disadvantages to filing jointly, most of them affect married couples where husband and wife both have taxable income. One drawback that affects all joint-filing couples, however, is joint responsibility. Both of you share the responsibility for any errors or omissions on the tax return and for any additional tax, penalties and interest that result.

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    About the Author

    Herbert Kirchhoff has over 35 years experience as a newspaper and newsletter reporter, writer and editor, with 27 of those years spent on telecommunications industry policy issues. Kirchhoff has a B.A. in journalism from Rider University in New Jersey and has been published in the "Trenton (N.J.) Times" and in "Communications Daily" and State Telephone Regulation Report, Washington, D.C.

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