A Brief History of Marriage in the Tax Code: Part 1, In the Beginning

This post is part of a long-term project I’ve been working on regarding the history of marriage in the tax code. wedding-rings-150300_1280

As I finish sections of the research paper I’m working on, I’ll post them here. This is a big project, one that will likely take years to finish, so I can’t guarantee when the next post on this topic will appear.


Part 1: In the Beginning

The modern-day income tax return has five options for filing status:

  • Single
  • Head of Household
  • Married Filing Jointly
  • Married Filing Separately
  • Qualifying Widow(er)

Each filing status comes with its own tax bracket. Specific pieces of tax law and regulations vary depending on filing status as well.

But in the beginning, in 1913, there were no filing statuses. There was just one tax bracket that applied to all taxpayers.

As Yale Law School Professor Boris Bittker notes, the focus of the original tax code was on the individual:

(T)he tax legislation enacted by Congress  was dominated by an individualistic approach at the outset. This focus on individuals rather than married couples, families, or  households was  implicit as early as 1913, when the introductory words of the first taxing statute based on the sixteenth amendment  imposed a  tax “upon the entire net income  arising or accruing from all sources … to every  citizen  of the United  States … and to every person residing in the  United States, though not a  citizen thereof.” The Revenue Act of 1916 made the point explicit by taxing “the entire net income received … by every individual.”

Bittker, Boris I., “Federal Income Taxation and the Family” (1975). Faculty Scholarship Series. Paper 2291. http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/fss_papers/2291

Despite the individualistic focus of the original tax code, married couples had the option of filing a joint return in 1913. But unlike today, a joint return in 1913 was merely a reporting mechanism in which husband and wife could combine their income onto one tax return, rather than each filing their own separate returns. It was not a “filing status” in the modern sense and there was no special tax bracket associated with it.

In Part 2 I’ll go into more detail about how taxes worked in the beginning.