Formal Equality on (Literal) Paper: Why Does the Man’s Name Go First on German Tax Returns?

The German publication Zeit Online recently published an article (here) critiquing a variety of gender disparities in German law. One that caught my eye was this discussion of the literal design of German tax forms:

Frauen werden in Familienbüchern und Heiratsurkunden an zweiter Stelle genannt. Genauso in der Einkommensteuererklärung – selbst wenn die Frau Hauptverdienerin ist. Das sorgte kürzlich für Aufsehen: Eine Hamburgerin trug sich als erste steuerpflichtige Person in der Kategorie «Ehemann» ein – und ihren Mann als zweites. Im Finanzamt mussten die Daten händisch umtragen werden – was den Steuerbescheid für die Familie verzögerte. Der Mann forderte viel kommentiert im Internet modernere Formulare. Das für die Software zuständige Landesamt für Steuern in Bayern betonte, die bundesweit vorgegebene Reihenfolge sei Zufall und keine Wertung.

My German isn’t great, but loosely translated (with some help from the Google machine) here’s what I can make out:

Women are named second in family books and on marriage certificates. Likewise in the income tax return – even if the woman is the main earner. This recently caused a stir: a woman from Hamburg recently listed herself on the tax return first, in the category “husband.” Her husband was listed second, in the category “wife.” The tax office was required to process the form manually, delaying the family’s tax assessment. This filing was consistent with a demand, the subject of much cyber-commentary, for more modern tax forms. The State Tax Office in Bavaria, which is responsible for the tax filing software, emphasized that the sequence of spousal names was a coincidence and not a value judgment or hierarchy.

Seems to me it would be pretty easy to have the prompt read “Spouse 1” and “Spouse 2.” I actually think that forms of communication and information transmission, including legal forms, matter. If a same-sex couple has children who need school permission slips signed, it’s quite different if the school request’s a “parent’s” signature, versus requiring a signature and then asking the signatory to check off “mother” or “father” to indicate the relation with the student.

Similarly, it matters if forms like tax forms only ask for married couples’ names by prompting response for “name of husband” and “name of wife,” in any order. Let the couple decide who wants to be listed first. It’t not that difficult to make the design change, and signals broader inclusivity.

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