Is Marriage Good for Taxes?
When most people are deciding whether or not to tie the knot, taxes usually aren’t the first thing on their mind. They should be though. In fact, taxes are one of the few tangible benefits of marriage, or costs, depending on the situation.
Tax laws were written to raise money for the government in such a way that the burden would be spread ‘fairly’ among everyone. What exactly constitutes fairness has been, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, a topic for debate. What most people can agree on is that those that have more disposable income can, and should, pay more in taxes. When two people get married, their incomes are combined, and so are their expenses. Married couples are taxed jointly on their combined earnings.
In a traditional family with one primary breadwinner, marriage is great for taxes. A significant income is combined with the other person’s little or no income to get roughly the original income. However, the tax brackets are much higher for 2 people. In fact, at the lower and mid range level, they’re actually doubled. For instance, a single filer pays 25% of taxable income over $37,650 (in 2016) to Uncle Sam. A married couple doesn’t hit the 25% threshold until $75,300 ($37,650 x 2).
In addition to the tax bracket benefits, couples can also combine their deductions. For instance, the standard deduction in 2016, a deduction that anyone can take in lieu of itemizing their deductions, is $6,300 for individuals and $12,600 for couples.
If two people earn the same low or moderate incomes and they marry, they’ll end up paying roughly the same in taxes. Their taxable income doubled, their deductions were combined, their tax brackets doubled and they’re back to right where they started.
Many people believe marriage can only benefit you come tax time, but that’s simply not true. Why is this the case? Because at higher brackets, the cut-offs don’t actually double. Uncle Sam knows that as a couple, your expenses don’t truly double (you probably both live in the same house, sleep in one bed, etc.), and he wants as much from you as he can get. The next bracket after 25%, which is 28%, starts at $91,150 for individuals and $151,900 (which is much less than $91,150 x 2 = $182,300) for married couples. That means if 2 people, each making $80,000 per year, marry, they’d be moving from a marginal tax rate 25%, to one of 28%. Of course, the 28% is a marginal rate and as such only applies to the amount above $151,900, so they’d end up paying an extra 3% on $8,100, or $243. The more both people earn, the higher the marriage ‘penalty’
It’s a common misconception that married filing separately is the same as being single. It’s not. Filing jointly is almost always the best option for married couples. Reasons for filing separately include wanting to protect yourself legally from a spouse that’s cheating on taxes, protecting your refund from back taxes or child support owed solely by your spouse, etc.
There are two federal taxes that marital status will not affect: Social Security and Medicare. Everybody has to pay a 6.2% tax on the first $113,700 they make regardless of marital status and a 1.45% Medicare tax (2.9% on self-employment income).
Here’s one of the biggest financial benefits of marriage. When your spouse (of 10 years or more) dies, you’re generally eligible for a survivor social security benefit. That means you can keep receiving up to their entire social security benefit, subject to certain restrictions. Calculating the actual amount of the survivor benefit can get a little tricky. It depends on many factors, such as the widow/widower’s age when he or she began receiving benefits, how much that person is receiving already from their own social security, etc. Divorced couples that have been married for more than 10 years may also be eligible for survivor benefits. Check out the Social Security Administration’s website (ssa.gov) for specific information.
Lastly, there’s no estate tax when assets pass between two married people. No matter how wealthy and individual is, he or she can leave 100% of his or her possessions to a spouse, and it’s all safe from Uncle Sam, at least until the spouse dies too.
Marriage is about a lot more than just taxes and financial benefits, but it’s only responsible to consider all the costs and benefits before deciding to make your relationship official. For some, having a marriage certificate may not be worth paying hundreds of thousands of dollars over their lifetimes in additional taxes. For most though, getting married sooner is financially better than later.