If you are married to a non-American and you both live overseas, you may have wondered how this impacts on
your U.S. tax filing situation, if at all. As with most concerns involving taxes, the more complicated they
can make it, the better Congress likes it! This article will try to present your various tax obligations
(and options) with regard to a non-American spouse as simply and precisely as possible.
The decision on how to treat your foreign spouse for income tax purposes is a critical part of
These are important points to consider:
- If you intend to have your foreign spouse apply for a green card and eventually for the U.S.
citizenship, it is in your best interest to treat him as a U.S.resident and file jointly.
- If your spouse has a self-employment income you may choose to treat him as a nonresident and file
separately. Then, his income is not a subject to U.S. income tax and self-employment tax.
If your non-resident spouse has foreign income from assets (e.g., rental income, capital gains, etc.)
and you file as married filing separately or as head of household, this income is not a subject to U.S.
If you file jointly, you must report this income on U.S. tax return.
Possibility #1 -- Spouse has "green card" or is otherwise considered "resident alien"
If your spouse has obtained a green card, is a naturalized U.S. citizen or is otherwise considered a
resident alien, the situation is
relatively simple. Even if you both live overseas, as long as your spouse has the status of a resident
alien, he/she will be taxed as if he/she was a U.S. citizen. This means world-wide income is taxed for
both of you. Not only is the earned income of each spouse subject to U.S. taxation, but any investment
income, even if earned in a foreign country with the foreign spouse as the sole recipient, is subject to
U.S. tax. The good news is that you can use the filing status of "married, joint" so that you get a higher
standard deduction and a personal exemption for each of you. Also, if you each qualify for the
foreign earned income exclusion, you can exclude up to $91,500 (for 2010) per person per year of foreign
Note: If your spouse is a citizen of another country (while also a resident alien in the
U.S.), and you happen to live in that country, special rules may apply. In the event the U.S. has a
tax treaty with that country, you should take a look at the treaty and/or consult a tax professional
in that country.
Possibility #2 -- Spouse is considered "nonresident alien (NRA)" for U.S. tax purposes.
If your spouse has neither a green card nor resident alien status, he/she will be classified as a
nonresident alien (NRA).
If this is the case, you have 2 choices, each of which comes with its own set of complexities:
A) Choose to treat spouse as resident alien for tax purposes.
If you follow this route, you must understand that you will have to report your spouse's worldwide
income (as described above) and it will be subject to U.S. tax. You also should realize this is an
active choice you make and there are certain procedures that must be followed to make it effective:
First, you have to attach a statement, signed by both spouses, to your tax return for the first
year to which the choice applies. The statement must include a declaration that one spouse is a
nonresident alien and the other is a U.S. citizen or resident alien, and you are choosing to both
be treated as U.S. residents for the tax year. You also have to include the name, address and
Social Security number (or Individual Taxpayer Identification number) of each spouse.
You also have to include the name, address and Social Security number (or Individual Taxpayer
Identification number) of each spouse.
Second, note that for the first year you make the choice, you have to file a joint return. But
in later years you can file joint or separate returns. It is also important to realize you must
continue to file this way (treating both as U.S. citizens or resident aliens) unless you (or
circumstances) end the choice. This can happen if either spouse revokes the choice in writing,
either spouse dies, you have a legal separation or divorce, or the IRS ends the choice because it
feels you haven't kept adequate records.
Anna Scott has been a US citizen for many years. She is married to Nikos, a nonresident alien. Anna and
Nikos make the choice to treat Nikos as a resident alien by attaching a statement to their joint
return. Anna and Nikos must report their worldwide income for the year they make the choice and for
all later years unless the choice is ended or suspended. Although Anna and Nikos must file a joint
return for the year they make the choice, they can file either joint or separate returns for later
You might wonder why you would go to all this trouble, especially if you have to declare the foreign
spouse's income. The main reason is you will use the "married, joint" filing status which gives you a
higher standard deduction and many other benefits that are not available if you use the "married,
separate" filing status. Also, if your spouse does not work or his/her income is excluded as foreign
income, you have no additional income on which you owe tax while still getting the benefits of the
"married, joint" filing status.
Social Security Number
If your spouse is a nonresident alien and you file a joint or separate return, your spouse must have
either a Social Security Number (SSN) or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). We can
help our clients obtain ITIN number for their nonresident spouses while they are living abroad. You
would have to provide original or certified copies of documents to verify your spouse's age, identity,
B) Choose to treat spouse as nonresident alien for tax purposes.
- If you decide you don't want to include your NRA spouse's income on your U.S. tax return, you
generally will have to use the filing status of "married, separate". However, if your spouse has no
income from sources within the U.S. and is not claimed as a dependent of another U.S. taxpayer,
you can claim an exemption for your NRA spouse. You need to be sure to obtain a Individual
Taxpayer Identification number for your spouse before filing the return (We can help you obtain ITIN
with the IRS).
- Furthermore, if you have other qualifying relatives living with you and you meet the other
eligibility tests, you can file as "head of household". The tax rates and standard deduction for this
filing status are much superior to that of the "married, separate" filing status.
- Unlike the "choice" you made with regard to treating your spouse as a resident alien, there is no
additional paperwork involved with treating your spouse as a nonresident alien for tax purposes. And
if you find that the "married, separate" status has too many negative tax implications, you may decide
that in future years you want to file "married, joint" by simply making the choice and attaching the
statement described above.