California Tax Filing with a Canadian Spouse

Our previous article discussed the concept of California domicile and the application of California community-property rules to Canadians domiciled in the state. This article is the second installment in our series explaining how California community property laws can impact Canadians.


At Cardinal Point, we regularly deal with cross-border couples who maintain cross-border lifestyles due to career commitments or other obligations. It’s important to understand how California’s community property laws apply when one spouse is domiciled in California and the other in Canada.


Imagine a married couple in which the wife lives in Toronto (and is domiciled in Ontario) and the husband lives in Los Angeles (and is domiciled in California). Both spouses are dual American and Canadian citizens and they file a joint U.S. Form 1040 tax return. The husband, Drew, is a professional hockey player who plays for a California-based NHL team. Drew’s wife, Amber, is a top fashion model based out of Toronto. The couple owns homes in both Toronto and Los Angeles. Since Amber is mainly working in Toronto, New York, London, and Paris, she only spends two weeks a year in Los Angeles with her husband. Moreover, Amber does not earn any California-sourced income.


One might assume that Amber does not need to file a California tax return and pay California tax, given that she doesn’t earn any California income and isn’t domiciled in California.

But as we stated in our previous article, California follows its own rules for determining tax residency. Unlike federal tax treatment, an immigrant to California is normally a California resident from the date of arrival. No 183 physical presence test or green card is required to determine California residency status. Moreover, since California is not a party to the Canada-U.S. tax treaty, the treaty is not applicable for purposes of determining California residency (similarly, California does not allow a foreign tax credit or the federal foreign earned income exclusion).


Going back to Drew and Amber, because they are filing jointly on their federal return, California requires the same joint filing status on their California return, and they would pay California tax on their worldwide income.


There is, however, a little-known legal exception that will allow our imaginary couple to file separately instead of jointly for California tax purposes. To file separately in California, two criteria must be met: (1) Amber must not be a resident of California and (2) she must not have any California-sourced income, including California wages and income from California real-estate property.


With Amber filing separately under the exception, she would still need to file a California 540NR non-resident return to pay tax on 50% of her husband’s California income. That’s because Drew is domiciled in California. Moreover, she would need to disclose her non-California-sourced income on the California return to determine her California tax rate.


Because of the complexities facing cross-border couples, they are well-advised to seek out tax advisers who specialize in navigating the cross-border tax landscape.


Marc Gedeon is a CPA (U.S), CPA (Canada), and Tax Attorney at Cardinal Point, a cross-border wealth management organization with offices in the United States and Canada.  Marc specializes in providing Canada-U.S. cross-border financial, tax, transition, and estate planning services. This piece is for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal or tax advice. Online readers should not act upon this information without seeking professional counsel.