Who May File a Joint Tax Return

February 27, 2012

When a couple files a joint tax return, they are considered a single economic unit in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. But not every "couple" is entitled to file a joint return. Only a married couple may file jointly, They do not have to be married for the entire year. A husband and wife must be married on the last day of the tax year in order to benefit from the joint filing status for the entire year. These benefits include a lower tax rate and certain credits, such as the earned income credit, the tax credit for the elderly, and the credit for child and dependent care expenses, which are only available to married taxpayers who file a joint return.

A married couple does not have to be living together on the last day of the year in order to file a joint tax return. However, if they are legally separated under a decree of divorce or a separate maintenance agreement, they are not considered married for federal income tax purposes even though their divorce is not yet final. The IRS considers parties to an interlocutory decree of divorce to be married and entitled to file a joint return before the finalization of their divorce.

A widow or widower who is a "surviving spouse" as defined by the IRS is entitled to use the more favorable joint return tax rates for a limited period of time.

Common law marriages are recognized for the purposes of filing a joint tax return. Taxpayers are considered married for the entire year for federal income tax purposes if they are living together in a common law marriage that meets the requirements of the state in which they live at the year's end or in the state where the common law marriage began.

Even if one spouse had no gross income or deductions and is not required to file a return, a couple is entitled to file a joint return to take advantage of the tax benefits. However, when a couple files a joint return, each spouse is jointly and severally liable for the entire amount of tax due even if one spouse had no income for the year. The fact that a husband and wife use different accounting methods (cash or accrual) does not prevent them from filing a joint tax return if the methods used clearly reflect their income. On the other hand, a married couple is not entitled to file a joint return if they have different accounting periods.

A U.S. citizen or resident and his or her nonresident alien spouse may elect to file a joint return. In order to do so, they must agree to be taxed on their worldwide income and to supply all necessary books, records, and any information needed to make a proper determination of their tax liability.

Generally, both spouses must sign a joint tax return. However, there are exceptions for a spouse who is under a disability that prevents him or her from signing, is absent from the country for continuous period of 60 days before the due date of the return, or on good cause with permission from the IRS. Under those circumstances, a duly authorized agent can sign the joint return.

Spouses of military personnel serving in a designated combat zone and missing in action may file a joint return even though the missing spouse has not signed the return. However, joint returns may only be filed when a spouse is missing for any tax year beginning not more than two years after the end of combatant activities.

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