The Marriage Penalty

No, I don’t mean the price of dealing with your spouse on an every-day basis as many sitcoms illustrate (frankly, I don’t consider that a penalty at all in case you’re reading this, honey!). I’m talking about the “features” built into the tax code so that a married working couple pays more tax than the same two working individuals would if they were not married. Few people understand this, but it can have a really big impact on your taxes when you get married and starting in 2013, the impact will be even bigger.

Let’s start with the most basic form of the marriage penalty, the tax brackets. Table 1 shows the starting income level for each 2012 income tax bracket for both the single and joint filer. As I described in Am I Working Too Much, a taxpayer pays tax at the rate indicated in the table for each bracket. For example, a single taxpayer would pay 10% tax on her first $8,700 of taxable income + 15% tax on her next $26,650 of taxable income up to $35,350 + 25% on her next $50,300 of income and so on. A married couple would pay tax in the same manner using the married tax brackets. Notice that while for the lower tax rates, the married bracket is two times the single bracket, the higher your income, the faster the married tax brackets increase vs. the single tax rates. This closes the gap between the married brackets and single brackets slowly until they are identical once reaching the top tax bracket. Let’s use an example to see the impact on two individuals, each with $150k of taxable income who get married. As single filers, they each pay 10% of $8700 + 15% of $26,650 + 25% of $35,350 + 28% of the remaining $64,350 for a total tax bill of $35,461 each or $70,922 in total. As married filers, using the married part of the table and a similar calculation, they’d pay $75,907 in tax. This additional ~$5k of tax is the most basic form of the marriage penalty. Note that electing to file Married Filing Separately does not reduce the marriage penalty since the MFS brackets are not the same as the Single brackets. Instead they are ½ of the Married Filing Jointly brackets. Additionally, it is not legal to file as a single taxpayer if you are legally married so you can’t just choose to file Single. To make things worse, starting in 2013 after the “Bush tax cuts” are eliminated, the multiple for the 25% tax bracket will be 1.67, instead of 2 as it is today. That will compress the 25% tax bracket for married filers down to $58,900 and add another few hundred dollars of tax.

There are other forms of marriage penalty in the tax code as well, some in existence now and others coming back in 2013 after the Bush tax cuts expire:

· For those claiming the standard deduction, the married standard deduction is currently $11,900, exactly twice the single deduction of $5,950. Starting in 2013 though, the old standard deduction marriage penalty kicks in here too with the standard deduction for married filers reverting back to ~1.67 times the single deduction (would have been $8700 for 2012).

· The qualifying income level for the Earned Income Tax Credit for married filers is less than 2x the Single levels.

· The new healthcare reform taxes starting in 2013 on investment income and earned income only impact those single filers with income up to $200k, but hit married filers starting at $250k per year in income).

· For those paying the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), the personal exemption for a married couple is less than 2x the Single level.

· The reduction in itemized deductions and personal exemptions which is due to return in 2013 will start at an income level for married couples that is less than twice the single income level.

· The threshold for determining whether a married couple’s social security benefits are taxable is substantially less than 2x that of a single filer.

· Multiple other deductions, credits, and exclusions in the tax code phase-out for married couples at less than 2x the single level including deductible IRA contributions, Roth IRA contributions, the Child Tax Credit, the deduction for capital losses taken in any one year, and the deduction for current year loss on a rental property.

More to come on the marriage penalty in future posts regarding 2013 tax changes.

One thought on “The Marriage Penalty

  1. Pingback: American Taxpayer Relief Act (ATRA) a.k.a. Fiscal Cliff Deal | PWA Financial Tastings Blog

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