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, and whether or not to do so is ultimately up to you, most married couples with only one income will be better off filing federal tax with married filing jointly status.
Married Filing Jointly with One Income
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, since tax brackets are significantly higher for couples filing jointly than one individual earner filing singly.
If you don’t itemize your deductions, you will double your standard deduction amount by filing jointly. Standard deductions are increasing from the 2017 to 2018 tax years, but in either year, by filing a joint return, your standard deduction effectively doubles over filing for the spouse with income alone.
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.
Drawbacks to Filing Jointly
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.
If you are concerned about that situation for some reason, you may want to consider filing separately.
2018 Tax Law Effects on Deductions and Exemptions
As of tax year 2018, the standard deduction is $12,000 for single people and married people filing separately but $24,000 for married couples filing jointly.
This means that if only one spouse has income, you are effectively doubling the standard deduction amount by filing jointly, since there's no advantage to the no-income spouse taking the $12,000 deduction for filing separately on $0 income.
Personal exemptions no longer exist in tax year 2018.
2017 Tax Law Situation
As of 2017, the standard deduction is $6,350 for single people and married people filing separately, versus $12,700 for married couples filing jointly. As in 2018, this means that you can effectively take twice the standard deduction by filing jointly if only one spouse has income.
Additionally, the married couple can take two personal exemptions, each at $4,050, for a total in $8,100 in additional deductions. If each spouse files separately, you'll essentially only see the benefit of one, for the spouse with income.
- Lawyers.com: Marriage and Filing Your Federal Tax Return
- IRS.gov: Publication 17 (2018), Your Federal Income Tax
- 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
- Forbes: IRS Announces 2017 Tax Rates, Standard Deductions, Exemption Amounts And More
- US Tax Center: Personal and Dependent Exemptions
Herb Kirchhoff has more than three decades of hands-on experience as an avid garden hobbyist and home handyman. Since retiring from the news business in 2008, Kirchhoff takes care of a 12-acre rural Michigan lakefront property and applies his experience to his vegetable and flower gardens and home repair and renovation projects.