If you're considering getting married soon, your thoughts may be consumed by images of a loving, fulfilling and romantic life with your future spouse. But the reality is, no matter how much you don't want to admit it, there are practical and financial considerations that must be made before tying the knot. One of the biggest changes that occurs when you get married is your tax situation. Whether you elect to file “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately,” the fact that you’re married will change your taxes. Before you settle down, do some calculating to determine how marriage can affect your returns.
Benefits of Filing Jointly
When you’re single, taxes are simple: You only have to worry about your own income. When you’re married, taxes get more complicated, but you’re also often entitled to more benefits. If you marry and file jointly, you’re immediately entitled to tax breaks, such as the child care credit for dependents and the Hope and Lifetime Learning Credits for student loan interest. These benefits are not available to single filers or married couples who file separately. Married couples filing jointly also acquire the right to contribute more to tax-deductible retirement accounts. Finally, if one partner has profitable investments or stocks but the other partner’s investments plummet, the investments that did poorly can offset taxes on the profitable investments.
Marriage Tax Penalty
While most married couples filing jointly reap tax benefits, some fall victim to the marriage tax penalty and end up paying more income tax than they would have if they’d stayed single. This often happens to couples who make around the same yearly income. As income levels rise, tax brackets for those filing jointly are not twice the amount for singles. For example, according to Fidelity, if you are single and both you and your partner make $83,000 a year, each of you falls into the 28 percent tax bracket. But if you’re married, the 28 percent tax bracket starts much lower than your combined income, at around $137,000. In this case, if you and your partner marry and file jointly, you’ll fall into a higher tax bracket and will be subjected to higher taxes. If one partner makes significantly more than the other, it is likely that marrying and filing jointly will result in tax benefits rather than penalties.
Before you get married and file a joint return, remember that once you do, your spouse’s financial issues become yours. If your spouse or potential spouse has substantial tax debt, has defaulted on student loans, or owes child support, it may be best to remain single or file separately once you marry. Otherwise the refund you would have received may be reduced. Filing separately can alleviate these problems, although you will not be entitled to many of the benefits you’d receive if you filed jointly.
Before you say “I do” and commit to tax changes, find out whether this is the best time to combine your resources. Sit down with your partner and have a conversation about your finances. Discuss what you each owe in student loans or other debt, what assets you have, how much you made last year. Calculate your taxes both individually and then separately to determine what is best for you. Working with a financial adviser can be helpful, especially in your first tax season together.
Megan Martin has more than 10 years of experience writing for trade publications and corporate newsletters as well as literary journals. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Iowa and a Master of Fine Arts in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.