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Tax Bill Going Up? It Could Be the Marriage Penalty

March 2, 2017
Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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Marriage proposals and weddings are joyous events, but for many couples the thrill of putting a ring on it also means saying “I do” to a higher tax bill.

The reason is what the tax industry refers to as “the marriage penalty” — a discrepancy that causes some married couples to pay more combined income tax than if they’d remained single. It happens because the tax brackets for married people and those for single people don’t exactly align. The result is that two single people may land in a lower tax bracket than a married couple with the same taxable income.

Two single people who each have $80,000 in taxable income, for example, would fall into the 25% tax bracket in the 2016 tax year, according to the IRS. But if they get married and file jointly, they have to use a different tax table — one that puts their combined $160,000 of taxable income in the 28% bracket.

Who takes the hit …

The marriage penalty is more noticeable for spouses who each earn roughly the same amount of money, says Richard Rampell, a CPA at Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Farra in Palm Beach, Florida, and people with taxable incomes as low as $38,000 can encounter it. The tax dollars involved rise with income; couples with combined incomes north of $200,000, for example, could face several thousand dollars in extra taxes for being married and filing jointly, he says.

The penalty can be as high as 12% of a couple’s income, according to the Tax Foundation, a nonprofit that researches tax policy. That figure doesn’t take into account differences in state tax brackets.

Andrew Poulos, an enrolled agent at Poulos Accounting & Consulting in Tucker, Georgia, says the marriage penalty also can take a toll on people using the head of household filing status, which is typically reserved for unmarried people paying at least half the cost of housing and support for others. Head of household status comes with its own tax bracket structure, so combining incomes and filing jointly could mean losing access to key tax credits and paying more, he says.

» MORE: Try our federal tax calculator

… and who might not

Couples in which one spouse doesn’t earn a salary or earns very little could actually fare better by getting married, again thanks to the differences in the tax bracket structures for single and married filers.

“If you have two people that are thinking about getting married, one person earns a lot of money and the other person earns almost nothing or a little — like under $10,000 — then it pays to get married. Then there is tax relief,” Rampell says. According to the Tax Foundation, the money saved when you file as married, as opposed to filing as single, could run as high as 20% of a couple’s income.

What you can do about it

There are a few ways to cope with the marriage penalty. One, Poulos says, is to maximize your deductions in an effort to reduce your taxable income as much as possible.

Another option is to postpone the wedding — and the tax hit — until the following tax year, Rampell says. “If you’re married on Dec. 31, even if you got married on that day, you’re considered for tax purposes to be married the whole year,” he warns.

And, of course, deciding not to walk down the aisle is another strategy. It’s really not that unheard of, Rampell and Poulos say. Several of their clients either have gotten divorced or never married their partners, specifically so they can avoid the tax hit.

Canceling a wedding for tax purposes can make for awkward conversations, however.

“That’s a moral question I guess that accountants don’t venture into,” Rampell says.

Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected].