Married filing jointly: Is it the status that leads to tax bliss?

Young same-sex couple sitting in their living room doing their taxes on a laptop, ready to use the married filing jointly status for the first time.Image: Young same-sex couple sitting in their living room doing their taxes on a laptop, ready to use the married filing jointly status for the first time.

In a Nutshell

The married filing jointly status typically gives married couples the highest standard deduction, the lowest tax bill and more tax breaks than if they file separately. The downside? Both spouses are liable for taxes owed on a joint return, even if one didn’t earn any income. And in some cases, it might make sense to file separate returns.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and CPA Janet Murphy, senior product specialist with Credit Karma. It has been updated for the 2020 tax year.

For many wedded couples, the married filing jointly status is love at first sight at tax time.

Filing a joint return with your spouse may get you the highest standard deduction and a lower tax bill, plus you might qualify for benefits not available to married couples filing separate tax returns. If you use the married filing jointly status, though, both of you are responsible for the tax and any interest or penalties owed, even if one of you didn’t earn any money for the year.

And for all joint filers, once both spouses sign and file the return, they can’t amend that tax return and file separately later for that year after the due date. Here’s what you need to know about the married filing jointly status.

How does the married filing jointly status work?

The IRS recognizes five filing statuses on the Form 1040: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow(er).

If you’re married, you and your spouse have the option of filing one federal income tax return.

Joint filers report their income, deductions and credits on the same federal return — even if only one spouse had income in the tax year. Both spouses will also list dependents on that joint return, both Social Security numbers will appear on the return, and both must sign it to use the joint status.

Married taxpayers may also choose to file separate returns. The tax rules for the married filing separately status are different from married filing jointly rules. More on that later.


How does married filing jointly work for same-sex couples?

Legally married same-sex couples can file their federal tax returns jointly and access the same federal income tax breaks and benefits as heterosexual couples. Learn about tax tips for same-sex couples.

Who is eligible to use the married filing jointly status?

You can use the married filing jointly status for a tax year if you’ve met any of these conditions.

  • You were married as of December 31 of the tax year, even if you didn’t live with your spouse during that time.
  • Your spouse died during the tax year and you didn’t remarry that year.
  • You were married at the end of the tax year and your spouse died in the following calendar year, before filing a return for the tax year.

Who can’t use the married filing jointly status?

Not every married couple will be able to use the married filing jointly status. Here are some situations where you and your spouse may not be eligible for the status.

  • You were married for part of a tax year but officially divorced before the last day of the tax year. In that situation, the IRS considers you unmarried for the entire year for tax purposes, and you can’t use the married filing jointly status.
  • You or your spouse is a nonresident alien at any time during the year. But if one spouse is a nonresident or dual-status alien and the other is a U.S. citizen or resident alien at the end of the tax year, the nonresident/dual-status spouse can choose to be treated as a resident alien for tax purposes, which would allow them to file a joint return. Learn about determining alien tax status.

If your spouse died during one of the previous two years, you haven’t remarried, have a qualifying child and meet other requirements, you’d have to use the qualifying widow(er) status. While it’s not exactly the same as married filing jointly, this status for surviving spouses provides some tax benefits similar to the filing jointly status.

What are the tax rates and standard deduction for married filing jointly in 2020?

Married couples who file jointly generally have the highest standard deduction (a set dollar amount that helps reduce the amount of income you pay tax on) and the most-generous tax brackets.

For the 2020 tax year, the standard deduction is $24,800 for joint filers. And it could be higher if you’re 65 or older or are blind. By comparison, single filers get a standard deduction of $12,400 for 2020.

The U.S. tax code is progressive, which means your income could fall into multiple tax brackets. In that case, you’ll pay the rate for each bracket only on the portion of your income that falls within the thresholds of that bracket. And you’ll pay a flat amount of tax in addition to the percentage of income for most brackets.

For example, a married couple filing a joint return for 2020 who has taxable income of $70,000 would pay 10% on the first $19,750 of taxable income ($1,975) and 12% on the remaining $50,250 ($6,030).

Their tax calculation would look like this.

First tax rate that applies to their income: $19,750 x .10 = $1,975

Second tax rate that applies to their income: $50,250 x .12 = $6,030

$1,975 + $6,030 = $8,005

Plus, they would also pay an additional flat amount of tax from their first tax bracket to determine their total tax.

What are some pros and cons of married filing jointly?

There’s a lot to love about the married filing jointly tax status, but it’s also not all hearts and roses for every couple.

Advantages of married filing jointly

For married couples, filing jointly as opposed to separately often means getting a bigger tax refund or having a lower tax liability. Your standard deduction is higher, and you may also qualify for other tax benefits that don’t apply to the other filing statuses. Tax deductions and tax credits may also be worth more for joint filers.

For example, joint filers who have children that qualify them for the child tax credit can have modified adjusted gross income of up to $400,000 before their credit amount is affected. For all other filing statuses, that amount is $200,000.

And taxpayers who are subject to the alternative minimum tax can fare better if they file jointly. For 2020, the AMT exemption amount for joint filers is $113,400, and their exemption begins to phase out at $1,036,800. For single filers, the exemption amount is just $72,900 and it begins to phase out at a much lower income — $518,400.

Drawbacks to married filing jointly

“Most people believe that everything for the married filing jointly status must be twice what it is for single because it’s two people,” says Kristin Ingram, a certified public accountant at Accounting In Focus and an accounting lecturer at University of Hartford. “And that’s not necessarily the case.”

For example, the income threshold for the highest tax bracket in 2019 was more than $612,350 for people married filing jointly. A married couple who filed jointly and had a combined income of $650,000 per year would have a marginal tax rate of 37%. But an unmarried couple with no kids where one partner earned $400,000 and the other earned $250,000 would each file separately as single. Each would have a marginal tax rate of 35%.

This is informally known as the “marriage penalty,” under which spouses sometimes end up in higher tax brackets faster than single people do.

Another drawback for joint filers is what the IRS calls “joint and several tax liability.” That means each spouse is responsible for taxes owed and penalties and interest that may arise from a joint tax return. That’s true even if you reported no income (while your spouse did), or if you both filed a joint return and then got divorced later. But in certain cases, ­­you might be able to qualify for relief from the responsibility of tax owed on a joint return or even seek a refund of tax paid.

When should I choose married filing separately instead?

Marriage merges two lives and, often, two sets of finances. Merging your taxes with your spouse’s by using the married filing jointly status certainly has advantages — but the filing status may not be for everyone.

Married couples can still choose to file two separate returns, rather than a single one, and there may be situations when that makes sense for some couples.

For example, if one spouse is on an income-based repayment plan for a federal student loan — which generally is based on an individual’s income and not their spouse’s — filing separately may be advantageous. But doing so will mean you can’t take the student loan interest deduction or education credits.

If a couple wants to keep their finances separate for whatever reason, or they aren’t willing to take responsibility for the other’s tax obligations, they may choose to file separately. And if one spouse’s refund could be offset for a tax debt, child support or other government debt, filing separately may allow the unencumbered spouse to keep their own refund — although innocent spouse relief may be an option if they still want to file jointly. And if there’s a large difference between two spouse’s incomes, the lower-earning spouse may benefit from filing separately.

Learn more about the married filing separately status.

Bottom line

In many cases, it’s advantageous for married couples to file jointly. But for some wedded duos, it could make sense to file separate returns. You may want to calculate your tax refund or tax liability for both scenarios carefully before choosing one.

Remember, when you both sign and file a joint return, it’s forever, because of the joint liability aspect — you won’t be able to amend it later to file under the married filing separate status after the due date for your tax return.

The IRS offers a free tool that can help you determine which status is best for your situation. You may also use an online tax-filing and preparation service to help you decide on a tax status, and then file your federal and single-state tax returns.

Relevant sources:

IRS Form 1040, U.S. Individual Income Tax Return | IRS Publication 17, Your Federal Income Tax (for Individuals) | IRS Publication 501, Dependents, Standard Deduction and Filing Information | IRS SOI Tax Stats — Individual Statistical Tables by Filing Status | IRS Answers to Frequently Asked Questions for Individuals of the Same Sex Who Are Married Under State Law | IRS: Determining Alien Status | IRS: Nonresident Alien Spouse | IRS: Choosing the Correct Filing Status | IRS Topic No. 501: Should I Itemize? | IRS Topic No. 205 Innocent Spouse Relief (Including Separation of Liability and Equitable Relief) | IRS Revenue Procedure 2019-44 | IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2020

A senior product specialist with Credit Karma, Janet Murphy is a CPA with more than a decade in the tax industry. She’s worked as a tax analyst, tax product development manager and tax accountant. She has accounting degrees and certifications from Clemson University and the U.S. Career Institute. You can find her on LinkedIn.

About the author: Kim Porter is a writer and editor who has written for AARP the Magazine, Credit Karma,, U.S. News & World Report, and more. Her favorite topics include maximizing credit card rewards and budgeting. Wh… Read more.