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Who is the ‘taxpayer’ and ‘spouse’ in marriages when both work?

In heterosexual couples, the percentages have changed over the years, but less than you might think

When married couples file a joint tax return, the form asks them to list one partner first and the second partner as the “spouse,” even if they’re both earning income.

Joel Slemrod, a University of Michigan professor researching this subject for an academic paper, created a bit of a guessing game from the data he and his co-authors gathered from a large nationwide sample of decades of tax return information.

Slemrod will often ask people he meets: What percentage of heterosexual married couples do you think listed the wife as the primary taxpayer in 1996? What about in 2020?

Go ahead, take a guess. We’ll put a photograph here so you can think about it, and then scroll down to see how close your guess was.

The answer, according to Slemrod’s sample: In 1996, 3 percent of straight couples listed the wife first as the taxpayer. In 2020, 12 percent did. (If you’re wondering how in the world the researchers would know the filers’ gender and sexual orientation, they matched them with non-tax-return sources using Social Security numbers to confirm their genders.)

“For your tax liability, it doesn’t matter. But if it really, literally, doesn’t matter, you might think it’s sort of random,” Slemrod said. “I think it reflects social norms, that the man takes the primary role in the financial affairs of the couple.”

Some tax preparers interviewed by The Washington Post gave a more mundane answer: It’s easier if you have a standard method.

Phyllis Jo Kubey said that of the 300-plus clients of her accounting practice in New York City, about 20 file with the woman listed first — although Kubey always asks newly married clients which name order they want, and strongly recommends that the primary taxpayer be the person with the more complicated finances.

“I’m still quite used to the male being primary,” she said. “A lot of the time when I do have clients where the female is the primary, I really have to think about it. Because my default, when I’m entering data, is if it’s a man, it’s a T for taxpayer. If it’s a woman, it’s S for spouse. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but habits die hard.”

Expect smaller refunds and continued phone delays this tax season

For their analysis, Slemrod and University of Michigan graduate student Evelyn Smith worked with two researchers in the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Tax Analysis, having access to a large sample of anonymized tax returns filed across the country that included 1 percent of all Americans who filed joint returns. Using other information to determine the filers’ genders allowed the four authors of the paper to answer a question the IRS had never answered before: the gender breakdown of the order of married filers.

The researchers, who shared their as-yet unpublished paper with The Post, found some patterns when wives’ names came first on tax returns: These couples were more likely to be young and more likely to live in blue states. They invested a smaller portion of their money in the stock market and were found to have underpaid their taxes by smaller amounts if they were audited, findings that the researchers attributed to the choices that women who control their family’s finances tend to make.

But the differences were small. Across demographic divisions, couples were far more likely to list the man as the taxpayer.

Whose name is listed first has absolutely no effect on how much the couple pays in taxes. But many women have noticed the pattern.

Barbara Provost founded a company called Purse Strings to help women maintain their financial independence. And when it came time to file her own taxes, she went to the same accountant for a decade.

Last year, Provost got married and asked her longtime accountant to complete a joint return. She was shocked when the accountant put her husband’s name first.

“I had been the client the whole time, for ten-plus years, and he knows my business. I called him up. I said, ‘Hey, I just have to tell you, it bugs me,’” said Provost, 63. “Why are you bumping up the man, my husband, above my name? I was his client for ten years. You’ve never even met my husband.”

She says her accountant told her that his tax software was set up always to list the husband first.

You can shield more money from taxes next year, thanks to inflation

Megan Genest Tarnow of St. Paul, Minn., has been listed as “spouse” on every tax return she and her husband have filed together since they got married in 1989. It wasn’t until the most recent time they filed their taxes that she fired off a tweet on the day taxes were due: “I make more of the money, pay more of the tax, and actually sign the dang check. Why is my husband the ‘taxpayer’ and I’m the ‘spouse’?”

Tarnow provides accounting consulting to nonprofit entities and frequently interacts with accountants on Twitter. (Her husband, meanwhile, makes most of his income resilvering mirrors.) So her tweet inspired a flood of responses from professional tax preparers. Some said they consistently make the husband the taxpayer so that they won’t mix up whose documents are whose when they have to mark whether income should be attributed to “taxpayer” or “spouse” on the return. One man said that in 35 years of preparing tax returns for couples, he recalled just four times he had listed the wife first.

Whomever you decide to put first in your own tax returns, the IRS advises couples to stick with that choice rather than alternating, to prevent confusion about their account. (Add that to the list of decisions a couple has to make in their first year of marriage.)

The researchers also found that fewer women were listed first as taxpayers in states where more residents identified themselves as politically conservative, although the variation wasn’t that large: from 83.7 percent of couples listing men first in Vermont at the low end, to 90.7 percent of couples in Iowa at the high end. (In D.C., 79.7 percent made the man the primary taxpayer.)

A woman’s likelihood of listing her name first did increase in proportion to her share of the household income. The link between greater earning power and being named the primary taxpayer was much stronger in households where the couple did its own taxes, rather than hiring a tax preparer, the researchers noted.

The researchers found that the correlation between earning more money and being listed first is twice as strong in the same-sex couples in their sample.

Lorilyn Wilson, an accountant in Oregon, tries to break the mold by listing women first, especially women who outearn their husbands. “In this day and age, I think it’s kind of antiquated,” Wilson said. “I don’t understand why there’s this hierarchy that’s created. [The IRS could] put ‘taxpayer 1’ and ‘taxpayer 2.’”

Most of her clients are not concerned by it, though. “It literally never comes up,” Wilson said. “People just want to know: Do I owe money? Do I get money? And that’s it.”