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Joint Return Test: Definition & Process

Updated: November 23, 2022

If you want to claim someone else as your dependent for tax purposes, the IRS has its own criteria that you must pass. A joint return test is what it is known as.

As long as you satisfy the prerequisites, you are free to choose any of the various filing statuses that the IRS permits while filling out your tax return.

So what exactly is the joint return test?

Read on as we take you through the definition, show you how it works, lay out the eligibility criteria, and answer some frequently asked questions. 

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    • You must utilize the shared return test to determine if a person who has lived in your home, been supported by you, and has not earned any money, is a dependent.
    • Most of the time, you cannot claim someone as a dependent if they are co-filing your taxes. Usually, this is a spouse.
    • One exception is if the person you’re claiming as a dependent and their spouse didn’t earn enough money to be taxed but nevertheless filed a return to receive paid for any income taxes that were withheld.

    What Is a Joint Return Test?

    A joint return test is an IRS-created test that you can use to evaluate whether you are eligible to claim someone else as a dependent on your taxes. The joint return test essentially argues that you cannot be someone else’s dependent if you may file as married filing jointly.

    If you’re married and eligible to file a joint income tax return, for instance, then your parents won’t be able to list you as a dependent on their tax return.

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    How Does a Joint Return Test Work

    According to the joint return test, a dependent cannot file a joint return with a spouse and yet be claimed as a dependent on another return, such as a parent’s or a guardian’s. This rule does have an exception, though.

    Because it is advantageous to claim dependents, the IRS has implemented a number of criteria, including the joint return test, to ensure that dependents are not being double-counted.

    What Are the Eligibility Criteria for a Joint Return Test?

    According to the joint return test, if you can file as married filing jointly, you are not allowed to claim someone else as your dependent.

    The joint return test, however, might be waived in two circumstances. If both of these are true, you are still eligible to be considered a dependent:

    • You or your spouse only submit a combined tax return to get a refund of taxes that were withheld.
    • Each of you would not owe any taxes if you or your spouse filed separate returns.
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    What Is the Significance of a Joint Return Test?

    The joint return test is crucial because it establishes safeguards against taxpayers seeking arbitrary exemptions.

    The joint return test is a safeguard against taxpayers using excessive exemptions. A married person may be claimed as a dependent in one of two situations while still filing a joint tax return. 

    First, if neither spouse is otherwise required to submit a tax return and both spouses file a tax return only to get a due refund. The second scenario is if neither partner owes any joint or individual taxes.

    What Is the Joint Return Test for Claiming Dependents?

    Beginning in 2018, the tax credit for each child that a taxpayer can claim as a dependent under the age of 17 will increase to $2,000 from $1,000. 

    The income threshold at which the credit fades out was also raised by Congress. In contrast to 2017 levels of $110,000 for married couples and $75,000 for singles, the credit now phases out at $400,000 of income for married couples and $200,000 for singles.

    Since the child tax credit reduces tax obligation dollar for dollar rather than lowering taxable income through a deduction, it is a particularly important provision of the tax code for many filers.


    The IRS developed the joint return test for people to use to see if they can claim someone else as a dependent on their taxes. The joint return test essentially argues that you cannot be someone else’s dependent if you may file as married filing jointly.

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    FAQs on Joint Return Test

    What Is a Joint Return for a Child?

    Most families will receive the full amount, which is $3,000 for each child between the ages of 6 and 17 and $3,600 for children under the age of 6.

    Who Can File a Joint Tax Return?

    If you and your spouse are married, you can decide to submit a joint return. 

    What Happens if Both Parents Claim Child on Taxes?

    The Internal Revenue Code gives you the option to modify your tax return if you mistakenly declared your child as a dependent.

    Can You File Joint Tax Return if Not Married?

    Couples who are not married cannot ever submit joint returns.

    Is It Better to File Single or Jointly?

    It’s almost always a better option to choose to file your taxes jointly compared to filing separate tax returns.


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