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Filing Joint Returns: Who’s on First and Who’s on Second?

Does the order of names on your joint federal income tax returns provide any insight into you and your partner? This was the subject of a recent study by researchers from the University of Michigan and representatives from the U.S. Department of Treasury. The study involved a review of tax data from the 2020 tax year which revealed that 88.1% of the time, the male’s name appears first on the tax return. For new joint filers, almost 1 in 4 married couples listed the female’s name first, and the percentage of female names first increased from below 3% to almost 12% between 1996 and 2020.

The study suggests that there is a link between joint returns where the male is listed first and the couple’s political and gender attitudes as well as higher financial risk tolerance, and even including the likelihood to engage in tax evasion! While listing the male first is down from 97.3% in 1996 to approximately 88% in 2020, the reality is that joint filers are discouraged from changing the order of their names on their tax returns from year to year as the IRS prefers consistency.

What about same sex joint filers? Interestingly, many findings for same sex joint filers are similar to that of different sex filers, including the fact that the older and richer partner is usually listed first. That said, same sex couples were found to change the order on a joint tax return from year to year somewhat more often than different sex joint filers.

In calculating tax liability, it makes no difference to the government who is listed first on a joint return as both parties are responsible for each other’s tax liability. Moreover, the IRS asks that taxpayers enter their names and SSNs in the same order as in previous returns as a change in the order can potentially cause processing delays.  Indeed, the study found that almost 99% of joint filers chose the same name order for their tax returns in consecutive years.

So, joint filers are likely to maintain the status quo and stick with a traditional approach on the order of names on a joint return. Therefore, who is listed first on a joint tax return may not be an accurate indication of the taxpayers’ current mindset on political or social issues but rather is attributable to an overwhelming desire to avoid raising tax compliance questions and risking an IRS audit.

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