Joint Return Test

Written By
Paul Tracy
Updated November 4, 2020

What is the Joint Return Test?

The joint return test is used by the IRS to determine whether or not a taxpayer may be validly claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer. This test also determines whether or not a married taxpayer may file a joint income tax return with his or her spouse.

How Does the Joint Return Test Work?

Taxpayers frequently claim other individuals (for example, children who are minors or disabled adult children) as dependents on their annual income tax returns. A married individual who is claimed as a dependent on another's tax return may not file a joint tax return with his or her spouse.

The IRS's joint return test definitively qualifies an individual as another's dependent for reporting purposes. For example, suppose Bob -- a married man -- is disabled and receives a sum of money each month from his father, Gene. For this reason, Gene wishes to claim Bob as a dependent on his own tax return. To find out if Gene has this option, the IRS runs a joint return test on Bob. If Bob passes the test, Gene may claim him as a dependent, leaving Bob and his spouse to file separate tax returns. If Bob does not pass the joint return test, Gene cannot claim him as a dependent, leaving Bob free to file a joint tax return with his spouse. 

Why Does the Joint Return Test Matter?

The joint return test is a measure that prevents taxpayers from claiming undue exemptions. There are two circumstances under which a married individual may be claimed as a dependent and still file a joint return. The first is if both spouses file a tax return solely to receive a due refund and are not otherwise required to file a return. The second is if both spouses carry no joint or individual tax liability.

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