Filing Status and Today’s Families

Erik Baines *

 

A long-standing issue of tax policy is whether to tax people as separate individuals or as social beings. That is, how should a taxable unit be defined? Today, married couples may file either a joint return or separate returns as married individuals. However, filing separately often increases a couple’s combined tax liability. Single people must file exclusively as individuals, but their rates are generally, though not always, higher than those of married couples with the same amount of income. This tax difference between a married person and an individual creates what are known as marriage penalties and bonuses. These penalties and bonuses often create a disincentive for both partners of a married couple to be employed. Historically, a single-earner couple was the norm; however, society has changed since Congress adopted the joint return in 1948. Shifting attitudes towards marriage and cohabitation continue to move the family away from the single earner married couple norm.

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* Law Clerk to the Honorable Melvin R. Hughes and the Honorable Bradley B. Cavedo, Circuit Court of the City of Richmond. J.D., 2012, University of Richmond School of Law; B.A., 2002, Virginia Military Institute. This comment was the first place winner of the 2012 McNeill Writing Competition sponsored by the McNeill Law Society of the University of Richmond School of Law. Tax rates are referred to in the context of the year 2011 throughout the comment.