Assume you’re recently married and getting ready to file your first joint tax return. One of you has to choose being the “Taxpayer” or “Primary Taxpayer”. The IRS does not label the other of you “Co-Taxpayer”, but “Spouse” or “Secondary Taxpayer”, unnecessary and hierarchical descriptors that date back to generations when women were not predominantly part of the workforce and did not generally pay income tax based on their own earnings history.
That’s okay, you think to yourself. This year my spouse can be “The Taxpayer” and next year we’ll switch and he can be “Spouse”. Not so fast. While theoretically possible, the IRS computer systems are not set up to handle switches from “Taxpayer” to “Spouse” or from “Secondary” to “Primary” Taxpayer.
“No problem,” you shrug. “I can spot the silver lining here. If I am not “The Taxpayer”, but merely a “Spouse”, then surely I cannot be responsible for the tax liability related to my spouse’s earnings. Ignorance is bliss!” No such luck. If you file your tax return under the Married Filing Jointly status (MFJ), you are jointly and severally liable for tax on both your and your spouse’s income. The concept here is that if you are filing a joint return, you are both benefitting from your joint income, no matter which one of you earns it. So you are both liable.