My wife and I are filing our taxes together. Joint return, they call it. It’s the better way to file, according to most tax experts and my veteran married friends. There are tax credits and other perks, I guess. I don’t have the patience to learn the intricacies of tax filing, or tax evasion, for that matter. My patience is reserved for humans at dog parks or whenever I accidentally hear Wolf Blitzer’s voice.
I filed my taxes myself a few years ago using TurboTax. It was a harrowing experience. It was the closest I’ll ever get to experiencing the pain of childbirth, complete with an episiotomy. I’m just not a numbers guy. And closely examining the anemic condition of my finances is enough to make me want to cry until I overextend my tear ducts and go blind.
That’s one of the reasons I love my wife, Katie. She’s a numbers gal. She worked at a bank in high-school and was in love with accounting. She considered becoming an accountant until her teacher steered her away from it as a career move. “It’d be a waste of your creative brain,” the teacher said. So, you see, my wife is multi-talented. She’s a rare breed. The kind who has mastery over both her left and right brain.
Since we moved in together four years ago, she has happily handled our family bookkeeping. Intricate Google spreadsheets clearly built by a designer-accountant let me know where we’re at with bills, savings and budget. It’s fantastic. Sure, I could manage my money perfectly fine—I did it before she arrived in my life—but I don’t want to. And she’s pleased as spiked punch to do so. Marital bliss.
With that, it comes as no surprise that Katie loves doing taxes. She even did mine the first year we lived together. Katie, like me, is a freelancer, so small-business taxes are no sweat but filing one’s own taxes are far less complicated than doing it for someone else. She was also a bit turned off by having no idea where to start with an out-of-state rental property that I own in Las Vegas, but she hacked it together. Well, at least the IRS hasn’t called yet. That said, it is rather adorable how much she relishes the joy of doing taxes and all the type-A thrills that comes along with it.
But we got married last year. That means we are now one federal unit. A single entity. A Voltron of love. What’s mine is hers. What’s hers is mine. And so are any tax benefits we get from things like rental properties and student loans. I guess that’s why filing jointly is good.
"I’m not even a person. I’m a spouse.”
Now, I’m not always the best husband. I wasn’t always the best boyfriend. I’ve annoyed, discouraged and upset Katie before. But hey! She’s done the same to me, too. So there! See? Marital bliss—all things equal. Yet I’ve never seen Katie as annoyed, discouraged and upset as she was while we filed our first joint tax return as husband and wife.
“Whose name is Primary on the return?” our tax professional, Kathy, asked us.
“Both?” Katie and I replied, unsure of why the question was necessary.
“There can be only one main filer,” Kathy said.
“What are we, frickin’ Highlanders?” I said.
“The IRS form has one Primary name placeholder. Two names is too hard for them. So there’s Primary and then there’s ‘Spouse.’ Who wants to be Spouse?”
Katie recoiled. “Does it matter whose name it is?”
“No. But since David has been here before, he’s already in our system. So if we use his name, we don’t have to re-enter everything for him. His house and all that. Saves you time here tonight so you can get out of here and enjoy the rest of your life,” Kathy said.
“Saves you time, too,” I said.
“Sure. But I’m happy to do whatever you all want. However, once you pick who is Primary and who is Spouse, you can’t go back. Ever.”
“Well, it’s not logical to make you redo previous years’ work,” Katie said. “I’ll be Spouse.”
I saw my wife’s—Katie’s—eyes go dim. She maintained composure throughout the appointment but the excitement and joy she had for it all was gone. When we left the office, she had tears where that that joy used to be.
“I liked doing my taxes,” Katie said. “Now I’ll never be able to do them again. Ever. Do I even get a refund or do you get it? How does that work? I’m not even a person. I’m a spouse.”
She said the word with disgust. And rightfully so. It does seem like a raw deal, this joint filing. Though we split all joint bills and expenses, there are certain things we keep separate. Like, Katie doesn’t deal with the Las Vegas property and I don’t pay her student loans. But now I’m going to receive the benefit of the interest paid on those loans. That’s not fair. And so Katie cried. Not a bawl, but that gentle, almost chuckling cry she does when she’s bummed about something but knows that in the grand scheme of things, there are far worse fates. Like she could not be getting the benefit of my rental property. It’s the kind of cry she does when we’ve annoyed each other enough that she says to me, “Why did I marry you, again?”
And that’s just what she said next. Then she repeated herself, almost in disbelief, “I’m just a spouse.”
She’s right to be upset. Katie and I are two individuals. We don’t even share a bathroom. I could just as well have been the spouse had Katie had a tax person like Kathy for us to go to. I could go on and list all things that make my spouse—Katie—an amazingly unique individual, but this is not the place for that. This is not an anniversary card or a beta male’s mommy blog. I’m not looking to wow you, the reader, with my sweetness or woo my wife with public displays of affection. Point is, the IRS is doing itself a disservice by being too stupid to recognize two names, of equal status, on a joint tax return. It’s taking away the little joys so many of us break ourselves trying to hold on to. They’re giving us good reason to evade paying at all. Given the choice, I think all of us would choose autonomy rather than being relegated to Spouse and having to share your student loan tax credit with the jackass whose parents paid for his college education.
If there was ever a case for small government, it is this: Let me, not the IRS, be the reason Katie regrets getting married.
So, if anyone doesn’t want to do their taxes, my spouse—Katie—is available. So is Kathy at H&R Block. But for Kathy at H&R Block, doing taxes is just a job. For Katie, it’s who she is.