What To Know About The Marriage Tax Break

by Pamela J. Hobart
Happy selfie of a multiethnic couple enjoying the sunny day at home in the balcony, looking at camer...
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It's too late to get married last year, but whether or not you just tied the knot you might be wondering what is the marriage tax break you've been hearing so much about. According to both singles advocates (who find it unfair) and marriage advocates (who think it's a great reason to get married), this alleged marriage tax break tends to sound significant and available to anyone who marries. But the truth is, as usual, much more complicated.

Everyone's particular tax situation is different, and you should always consult a reputable tax professional for the final word about your taxes if you have doubts. That pros are sometimes necessary to figure out taxes kind of adds insult to injury, but it's better than getting audited. Congress has tinkered with these many tax conditions over the years to try to make taxes more fair, all things considered, and it'd be impossible to explain all the ins and outs in one sitting. That being said, understanding a few general concepts will help us to unravel the mystery of the marriage tax break at a high level.

First and foremost, the marriage tax break is not a perk handed out automatically to Americans who marry. Instead, the "break" just refers to certain common sets of marital circumstances that help you save money (as compared to the combined taxes you would have paid individually). Similarly, the marriage tax penalty is just a set of circumstances that make marriage less favorable in total tax amount than filing separately would have been.

Perhaps the most common way couples end up effectively receiving a marriage tax break is when one spouse substantially out-earns the other. Filing jointly, the higher earner and the lower earner are now considered a household, with different brackets for increasing marginal tax rates than individuals face.

All other things being equal, the lower earner sort of drags a higher-earning "head of household" down the scale as far as household incomes are concerned, often leading to a lower total dollar amount owed. This arrangement is a little old-fashioned, and you might think it's wrong for the government to encourage marriage of this "traditional" breadwinner kind. But like it or not, we're stuck with this policy for now.

TurboTax points out that there are other miscellaneous tax benefits to marriage, too: larger deductions for charitable contributions, ways to pass the estate to a surviving spouse tax-free, and being able to file just once (amongst others). But for many young couples with relatively simple tax situations, the simple effect of switching from the single tax brackets to the married/"household" ones will have the most effect.

Data from the Congressional Budget Office suggests that, as of 1997, 51 percent of married Americans enjoyed a tax break due to their marital status. Although that's many people, it's far from every married person, and couples with combined low or middle incomes were most likely to score a marriage tax break (high earners marrying each other tend to be penalized instead, but at least they can afford it). So if you're thinking of marrying even in part for tax reasons, you'd better try a marriage tax calculator to be sure — or just marry for love instead, taxes be damned.

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