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Whose name goes first on a joint tax return? Here's what the answer says about your marriage.

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When you and your spouse do your taxes every year, whose name goes first? A couple's answer to this question can say a great deal about their beliefs and attitudes, concludes a recent paper from researchers at the University of Michigan and the U.S. Treasury Department.

While American gender roles have shifted a great deal in the last 30 years, the joint tax return remains a bulwark of traditionalism, according to the first-of-its kind study. On joint tax returns filed in 2020 by heterosexual couples, men are listed before women a whopping 88% of the time, found the paper, which examined a random sample of joint tax returns filed every year between 1996 and 2020.

That's a far stronger male showing than would be expected if couples simply listed the higher earner first, noted Joel Slemrod, an economics professor at the University of Michigan and one of the paper's authors. 

In fact, same-sex married couples listed the older and richer partner first much more consistently than straight couples did, indicating that traditional gender expectations may be outweighing the role of money in some cases, Slemrod said.

"There's a very, very high correlation between the fraction of returns when the man's name goes first and self-professed political attitudes," Slemrod said.

Name order varied greatly among states, with the man's name coming first 90% of the time in Iowa and 79% of the time in Washington, D.C. By cross-checking the filers' addresses with political attitudes in their home states, the researchers determined that listing the man first on a return was a strong indication that a couple held fairly conservative social and political beliefs.

They found that man-first filers had a 61% chance of calling themselves highly religious; a 65% chance of being politically conservative; a 70% chance of being Christian; and a 73% chance of opposing abortion.

"In some couples, I guess they think the man should go first in everything, and putting the man's name first is one example," Slemrod said. 

Listing the man first was also associated with riskier financial behavior, in line with a body of research that shows men are generally more likely to take risks than women. Man-first returns were more likely to hold stocks, rather than bonds or simple bank accounts, and they were also more likely to engage in tax evasion, which the researchers determined by matching returns with random IRS audits.

To be sure, there is some indication that tax filers are slowly shifting their ways. Among married couples who started filing jointly in 2020, nearly 1 in 4 listed the woman's name first. But longtime joint filers are unlikely to flip their names for the sake of equality — because the IRS discourages it. The agency warns, in its instructions for a joint tax return, that taxpayers who list names in a different order than the prior year could have their processing delayed.

"That kind of cements the name order," Slemrod said, "so any gender norms we had 20 years ago or 30 years ago are going to persist."

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