The voices of Tax Policy Center's researchers and staff
Just in time for Valentine’s Day! Before you ask your beloved to marry you tonight, you might want to check out the Tax Policy Center’s updated version of our Marriage Bonus and Penalty Calculator. The calculator shows the difference in income taxes owed by couples before and after they say “I do.” TPC has updated the calculator to reflect the tax laws in effect in 2019, so you can find out now how you and your potential spouse would fare if you marry before the ball drops this New Year’s Eve.
Here are two easy rules-of-thumbs. Marry someone whose income is significantly higher or lower than yours, and the two of you will almost always get a gift—a marriage bonus—from the Tax Code for walking down the aisle. But marry someone who earns about the same amount as you, and your combined taxes could be higher—a marriage penalty—than if you skip the wedding and just live together.
The good news for couples with similar incomes is that tax code changes since 2001 have reduced the likelihood that they will face a marriage penalty. Nowadays, most unmarried couples receive a bonus when they marry, though some still pay a penalty.
One reason for the persistence of marriage penalties is that many tax credits phase out as income rises. For example, Ellie and Ezra are the proud parents of three-year-old Elijah. Both Ellie and Ezra make $30,000. If they stay unmarried, Ellie and Ezra must decide who will file as the head of household and claim Elijah as a dependent in 2019; the other must file as single. Because they make the same amount of money, who claims Elijah does not matter (as long as only one does!): between the two of them, the family will receive, on net, $666 back from the government, partly because of the refundable Earned Income Tax Credit. But if they marry in 2019, they would owe $1,884 in federal income taxes, $2,550 more than if they remain unmarried. With a combined income of $60,000, Ellie and Ezra no longer qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
Now consider Jenny and James. Jenny makes $60,000 a year, and James stays home and takes care of Jake, their three-year-old son. If they decide to put off marriage for another year, Jenny will file as a head of household and claim Jake as her dependent on her 2019 tax return. She will pay $2,721 in federal income taxes. (James will not file a return because he does not have any income of his own in 2019.) If they marry in 2019, the newlyweds will—like the now-married Ellie and Ezra—owe $1,884. But for Jenny and James, their taxes will be $837 less than if they stay unmarried.
If you are in one of the couples lucky enough to receive a marriage bonus, print out the Detailed Breakdown of your potential savings and share it over a candlelit Valentine’s dinner. Nothing says “I love you” like a ring placed upon a document that shows you are going to get a tax cut. Don’t worry, however, that your beloved will reject your Valentine’s Day marriage proposal if it turns out you are fated for a lifetime of income tax marriage penalties. They rarely affect people’s decision to wed. Still, there is one clear benefit to at least delaying your proposal until Friday: You’ll avoid the higher prices charged by restaurants on Valentine’s Day.
Posts and comments are solely the opinion of the author and not that of the Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute, or Brookings Institution.