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Marriage Bonuses vs. Marriage Penalties

Marriage Bonuses v Marriage Penalties

Marriage can be a wonderful milestone in life. But in the midst of planning a wedding and a future with your significant other, you may not be thinking about how your new union will affect your tax bill. One critical tax factor to examine is the concept of marriage bonuses and marriage penalties. These terms refer to how marriage can affect a couple’s tax liability. In this post, we will look at the fundamentals of marriage bonuses and marriage penalties, as well as how they might affect a couple’s tax situation as a whole.  

What is a marriage bonus? 

A marriage bonus happens when a married couple’s combined tax liability is less than the sum of their individual tax liabilities if they filed as single individuals. This is most common when one spouse earns much more than the other. By combining their wages, the couple can take advantage of reduced tax brackets, tax credits, and deductions that they might not have had access to as single filers. 

Here’s an example. Let’s say an unmarried couple has a combined income of $120,000, one person earning $0 and the other earning $120,000 in 2023. As single filers, the first person would have a $0 tax liability, while the second higher-earning person would have a tax bill of $18,876. If this same couple got married and filed jointly, their combined tax liability would be just $10,921 because they would be able to claim a larger standard deduction and would be taxed at a lower marginal tax rate. 

What is a marriage penalty? 

Conversely, a marriage penalty arises when a couple’s combined tax liability as a married couple is higher than their total tax liability if they were still filing as single individuals. Because merging incomes in joint filing can drive both spouses into higher tax brackets, couples with similar incomes are more likely to pay marriage penalties than couples with one spouse earning the majority of the income. 

Another factor to consider when calculating the marriage penalty for high-income earners is the net 3.8% investment income tax. This tax is levied on single filers with an adjusted gross income of $200,000 or more, as well as married filers with an adjusted gross income of $250,000. In addition, these same taxpayers will also be subject to an additional Medicare tax of 0.9% on earnings over $200,000 for single filers, and over $250,000 for married couples filing jointly.  

Beyond federal marriage penalties, some states also impose their own marriage penalties, including California, Georgia, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, New Jersey, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.  

How can I avoid a marriage penalty? 

Understanding your tax situation as a married couple is essential for efficient tax planning. For example, you can always calculate different scenarios to estimate your tax liability before filing. Filing separately rarely results in a more advantageous outcome for couples, but you may find yourself under these special circumstances. You should also explore all eligible deductions and credits to reduce your overall tax liability. Married couples who file jointly have access to several tax credits, including the Earned Income Tax Credit, education credits, and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. Be aware of phase-out limits that might affect your eligibility. If you’re still unsure how to navigate marriage penalties and bonuses, consider consulting a tax professional. Doing so can provide valuable insights tailored to your specific situation. Optima Tax Relief is the nation’s leading tax resolution firm with over a decade of experience helping taxpayers just like you.  

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