Is there anything more romantic than taxes? Well, probably. But that doesn’t mean you and your spouse should avoid the issue altogether, especially if one of you is a non-US citizen.
The fact is that the rules for filing joint taxes as a married couple in the US don’t differ greatly if your spouse is foreign, and there are still many choices open to you as to whether to file joint or separate tax returns. Advantages run both ways, so be sure to consider all your options.
How your decision around filing joint taxes pans out depends primarily on one question: is your foreign spouse a US resident?
YES: my spouse has a Green Card, or is considered a resident alien
In this scenario, the process is quite straightforward, meaning that your spouse has no choice but to file their US taxes – whether they live in the US or abroad. This means that they have to declare all of their income, even if it is earned in a foreign country and received solely by them, be it through work, investments or return on assets.
The upside of this rule is that the two of you can decide to file joint or separate taxes in exactly the same way that you would were you living in the US, and you can make this decision to your advantage. Usually, filing joint taxes means higher deductions and personal exemptions; so making this choice could really work in your favor.
Do be prepared to do some paperwork if you do opt for this route, though this will only be necessary for the first year you file and not for subsequent years.
NO: my spouse does not have a Green Card and is considered a nonresident alien
This scenario is slightly more complex, but you have more options open to you:
1) If your spouse does not have American residency, you can declare they have resident alien status for the purpose of filing taxes.
The advantages to doing this are the same as stated above: as a couple you have higher deductions and personal exemptions, which means it’s likely you would end up paying less tax in total.
2) However, perhaps your spouse earns all of their money outside of the US and likewise uses it all outside of the country. If they are also not a dependent of anyone in the US, then they are eligible for exemption, and this might be the route you want to take, should tax conditions in their country of residence be more favorable.
In this situation, should you have other qualifying dependents living with you, you have the additional option of filing as Head of Household, which incurs greater benefits than simply filing separately from your spouse.
Getting a SSN or ITIN for your foreign spouse
In order to gain exemption for your spouse, you still need to get either a SSN (Social Security Number) or an ITIN (International Taxpayer Identification Number) for them. You can apply for a SSN for your spouse with an SS-5 form at any Social Security Office, or at a US Embassy or Consulate in foreign countries. Should you not be able to get a SSN, then opt for an ITIN, which is issued to nonresident alien spouses of US citizens in precisely these circumstances. There are a number of ways to get an ITIN, and the first step is to prepare a W-7 form.
The choice is yours
Filing your taxes separately or together with your spouse is a choice you are free to make yourself. There is no wrong answer here, and it’s just a matter of weighing which path will benefit you the most. And the best thing about it is, should your financial situation change in the next few years, you will be able to easily change your filing status from joint to single, or the other way around.
Your marriage vows, however, are slightly more binding.
Still have questions about filing joint taxes with your foreign spouse?
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Originally published in 2017; most recently updated March 2020.