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This is possibly an unanswerable question, but I'm curious as to why the UK doesn't have the concept of paying income tax as a couple, the way the USA does?

It occurred to me a few days ago that, because I'm a higher rate tax payer and my wife is not, we pay significantly more income tax as a couple than some other hypothetical couple that earns the same gross as us but their incomes are split evenly.

Here are some concrete numbers to illustrate:

Scenario 1:

Salary          Tax             NI          Total
£75,000.00      £17,496.00      £5,464.00   £22,960.00 
£20,000.00      £1,498.00       £1,364.00   £2,862.00 
£95,000.00      £18,994.00      £6,828.00   £25,822.00 

Scenario 2:

Salary          Tax             NI          Total  
£47,500.00      £6,998.00       £4,664.00   £11,662.00 
£47,500.00      £6,998.00       £4,664.00   £11,662.00 
£95,000.00      £13,996.00      £9,328.00   £23,324.00 


        Difference:     £2,498.00

The difference is a very significant £2,498 per year, which amounts to a rather unfair and, frankly, bizarre scenario. If there was some way I could 'pay' money to my wife and she paid income tax on it instead then our overall tax bill would reduce, which doesn't make sense.

Both my and my wife's salaries are paid into the same joint account. Has the UK ever had this ability to make income tax jointly?

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    Taxation is neither fair nor rational but the result of political decision making which is often bizarre. - Additionally collecting taxes is one of the core sovereign rights of a government. AFAIK even within the EU nobody dared to attempt to harmonize taxation and with the looming Brexit and "take back control" sentiment: why would the UK government follow any examples set by other countries, especially when such examples would see a reduction in the amount taxes it receives? – HBruijn May 28 at 11:04
  • @HBruijn it's technically possible to adjust the tax rates so that a change in the system doesn't cause a reduced amount of tax collected... Whether it's politically possible is a whole other story! – Erwan May 28 at 22:48
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    @Erwan Indeed, but such new budgetary neutral political decisions is how you end up with even more bizarre complicated rules, regulations and exceptions – HBruijn May 29 at 5:03
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    The unfairness compounds when you additionally consider child benefit clawback. Couple both earning £49k => full child benefit. Couple earning £60k and £0k => no child benefit. – AakashM May 29 at 10:11
  • AakashM - you mean a couple making £50k and £0k. – gnasher729 May 29 at 16:04
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There's an absolutely fascinating history of independent taxation in the UK in this 1995 House of Commons research paper "Tax and Marriage". Some choice extracts below.

Certainly income tax in the UK used to be paid as a couple originally:

Since the introduction of income tax in this country in 1799 ... a married woman's income has been taken to be but part of her husband's, and taxed accordingly. The Income Tax Act 1806 directed that any profits earned by a married woman "shall be deemed to be the profits of the husband."

and that was pretty much the status-quo for almost two centuries:

The language used in section 279 of the Income and Corporation Taxes Act (ICTA) 1988, which codified this rule prior to the introduction of independent taxation, shows little change over the intervening years: "A woman's income chargeable to income tax shall ... during which [time] she is a married woman living with her husband, be deemed for income tax purposes to be his income and not her income."

Although the rules did change over the period:

A number of changes were made during this century mitigating the inequalities of this rule, three of particular importance.

In 1918 an additional tax allowance was introduced - the so- called "wife" allowance - given to all married men; this was the first specific provision made by the income tax system for married couples. At the time, it was felt that recognition should be given to the additional financial burdens that marriage imposed. One usual consequence of a wedding was that two people became dependent on the one (husband's) salary, while sole responsibility for the care of children usually fell to a wife.

From 1914 spouses could elect to file their own tax return, being liable to pay tax on their own income. However this election had no effect on their aggregate tax liability. The two incomes were added together, tax due on the joint income was computed as if the joint income was the husband's, and the tax liability was then apportioned between the spouses roughly in the ratio of their incomes. The system was complicated and unpopular, both with taxpayers and the Revenue.

In 1971 an election for separate taxation of a wife's earnings was introduced. Couples could elect to have their earned income assessed separately for tax, and a wife's earned income was taxed as if she were a single person. This election had to be made jointly, and any unearned income enjoyed by a wife continued to be aggregated with her husband's when assessed for tax. Although the wife claimed her own single person's allowance, neither spouse could claim either of the married allowances. Election for separate assessment was only attractive for couples with relatively high incomes, where the wife had significant earned income.

...

Despite these changes, the fact remained that on marriage a woman lost her rights to financial privacy and independence.

Pressure for independent taxation grew:

Despite the introduction of the wife's earning election in 1971, aggregation of spousal income came in for increasing criticism during that decade. An indication of the pervasive nature of the system was given when finally, in 1978, the Inland Revenue changed its practice of replying to any correspondence from married women by simply writing to their husbands. Instead, tax offices were instructed to write directly to the person concerned.

That same year, 1978, the Equal Opportunities Commission published a highly critical report on the taxation of married couples. The Commission argued that individuals who did the same work should expect to receive the same reward and be taxed on that reward in a like manner. Indeed, the taxation of men and women as individuals, irrespective of their married status, was the only approach consistent with the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Equal Pay Act 1970 .

The document describes a lot of wrangling over the details of reform, particularly around the transferability of unused allowance. But eventually:

Determined to have a scheme up and running before the next election, Nigel Lawson developed what was, in his own words, a 'half-way house', which he announced in the 1988 Budget. From the start of the 1990-91 tax year, a husband and wife would be taxed independently on income of all kinds.

...

Chancellor Nigel Lawson, said in his 1988 Budget speech when first announcing its [independent taxation's] introduction, "the present system ... takes the income of a married woman as if it belonged to her husband. Quite simply, that is no longer acceptable."

And here we are, although of course there has been much subsequent tweaking, in particular the rapid elimination of "Married Couple's Allowance" which was introduced with the reforms and intended to reduce the impact on couples who had benefited from the old approach (see comment below this answer and pages ~16 in the linked PDF).

The token "Marriage Allowance" introduced 2015 and described in Tom Revell's answer seems to me to been a political stunt borne out of some sort of nostalgia for the Good Old Days of joint tax returns and transferable allowances. The IFS commented on this when it was announced in 2013:

As the maximum gain is less than £4 per couple per week, effects on incomes and incentives would be small. The social message sent by the tax break looks more significant than its financial consequences for families, as the Prime Minister has stated himself. But as a structural change to the tax system it may ultimately turn out to be more important. First, it would re-introduce an incentive to marry in the income tax system, just when Married Couples’ Allowance - now available only where one spouse was born before 6 April 1935 - had been almost entirely phased out.

...

Second, the transferral of allowances between spouses would re-introduce an element of joint income taxation. This is inescapable if the aim is to assess people based on family characteristics (in this case, to target single-income families) as our benefits system already does, rather than based only on individual characteristics. There is a much wider, principled debate behind all this about the role of joint versus individual assessment.

Perhaps one day we will find we have gone full-circle?

  • Enlightening, +1. It seems absurd that nobody thought to make both possible, that is simply give couples the choice to declare either independently or together. – Erwan May 28 at 22:44
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    @Erwan I think the idea was there was originally a transferable Married Couple's Allowance (MCA) - which you can still claim if you were born pre-1935 - which would compensate people who lost out from no longer being able to file jointly. However - surprise! - by the early 90s those were being scaled back and "on the path to extinction". See the linked PDF ~page 16. From what I remember of the times, you had cohabiting couples and single parents feeling they were being penalised vs. the Archbishop of York claiming marriage should be financially rewarded. – timday May 28 at 23:05
  • @Erwan Indeed. We do have that option (married filing separately or jointly) in the US though I've never looked into the nuances of doing it independently. Everything I've read over the decades paints jointly in the best light financially though there are likely exceptions. – topshot May 29 at 12:19
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    I have to say, claiming a move towards equality and fairness while simultaneously de facto raising taxes on many of the same people you are claiming to help is a piece of political genius far ahead of its time. Good answer, and fascinating read! – BrianH May 29 at 14:45
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    Anyone in Germany finds the argumentation bizarre - in Germany, for the total tax you add the incomes, and then the couple pays the same tax as two singles each making half of that combined income. Any couples making the same combined income pay the same combined tax. – gnasher729 May 29 at 16:09
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It doesn't help in your specific case, but there is a limited ability to do this via the Marriage Allowance.

From the link:

You can benefit from Marriage Allowance if all the following apply:

you’re married or in a civil partnership

you do not pay income tax or your income is below your Personal Allowance (usually £12,500)

your partner pays income tax at the basic rate, which usually means their income is between £12,501 and £50,000

  • My wife and I have taken advantage of this. An account of how it works via Self Assessment at money.stackexchange.com/q/104388/35887 . It's not worth all that much in practice ~£250 (less than the OP's example but better than nothing). – timday May 28 at 21:33
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    There's also ANOTHER similar thing called "Married Couple's Allowance" which can only be claimed where at least one partner was born before 6 April 1935. I'm not sure of the details but it's worth a bit more... up to ~£900. More at gov.uk/married-couples-allowance – timday May 28 at 21:44

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