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. While your personal situation may warrant the filing of separate tax returns, most married couples with only one income will be better off filing jointly.
Reduced Tax Bill
One good reason for filing a joint return, even though only one of you had income, is a lower tax bill. Federal tax tables at IRS.gov show that filing jointly can reduce your tax bill considerably when your spouse had no income. For example, if your net taxable income after exemptions and deductions was $75,000, your tax bill would be $10,905 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 $20,954.
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 2018 is $12,000. 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 $24,000, 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 for the 2017 tax year reduces your taxable income by $4,050. However, as of 2018, new tax law reforms have done away with personal exemptions.
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.
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.
- Lawyers.com: Marriage and Filing Your Federal Tax Return
- IRS.gov: Publication 17, Chapter 2, Filing Status
- IRS: Individuals of the Same Sex Who Are Married Under State Law
- Forbes: IRS Announces 2018 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More
- IRS: May I Claim an Exemption for Myself or My Spouse?
- CNBC: Families will feel the pain of losing this tax break
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