More than two million American couples will get married this year. Many of them will pay more in taxes because they tied the knot.
The Republican tax overhaul passed in 2017 lowered the cost of being married for many couples. Even so, being married is often more expensive than being two single filers come tax time. If a couple has children and both spouses earn income, they can owe Uncle Sam thousands of dollars every year just for being married.
These marriage penalties, as they’re called, prompt some committed couples to leave the knot untied. Some even have big weddings but don’t marry legally.
While most couples choose to keep this decision private, one famous (well, famous for economists) couple has been pretty open about the decision.
Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists with international reputations at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, have been together for years. They are the parents of two children. But they aren’t married and say one reason is taxes.
Filing as two single people provides the couple with significant tax savings, according to Ms. Stevenson, though she declined to say how much.
By being public, the couple hopes to stimulate policy discussion.
A common complaint about the current tax structure is a difference between couples that have similar incomes and couples in which one partner earns much more. Under the law, a couple whose incomes are far apart often pay less if they’re married, while couples whose earnings are more evenly split often pay the same as or more than two singles.
“Any household where one earner is generating the same income that Justin and I generate together is better off than we are, because of the value of the stay-at-home spouse’s time,” says Ms. Stevenson. She has proposed a tax credit for the second-earning spouse.
Here’s how marriage bonuses and penalties work in practice, based on examples computed on the Tax Policy Center’s 2019 Marriage Calculator. It’s free and useful for what-if calculations.
Say that two couples each have total income of $225,000 and no children or itemized deductions.
In the first couple, one partner earns $210,000 and one earns $15,000. If they marry, they’ll save about $8,400 compared with filing as two singles.
In the second couple, one partner earns $145,000 and the other earns $80,000. Being married will save them about $300 compared with filing as two singles.
Things change if each couple has two young children and typical deductions for mortgage interest, state taxes and charity. The couple with one high and one low earner has a marriage bonus, although it drops to about $3,200.
The second couple now has a big marriage penalty.
They owe about $4,000 more than they’d pay as two single filers—just for one year. Having a $50,000 capital-gain windfall would add nearly $1,000 to their penalty.
The reasons for these disparities are complex, says Roberton Williams, a tax economist at the University of Maryland.
He says that in a system that imposes higher rates as income rises, like America’s, it’s impossible to tax married couples based on their total income regardless of who earns it while also taxing married couples so they owe the same as two single people.
“The U.S. system creates marriage bonuses and penalties. Other countries avoid this by taxing married couples as two individuals,” Mr. Williams adds. Shifting to such a system could be difficult in the U.S., in part because of community-property laws in some states.
The tax code also has marriage penalties in specific provisions.
For example, singles can’t directly contribute the maximum amount to a Roth IRA for 2019 if they earn more than $122,000. For married couples the limit is $193,000—not $244,000.
The 2017 tax overhaul repealed some marriage penalties and broadened some tax brackets, helping many two-earner married couples. But it retained other marriage penalties and added more.
One is the new $10,000 limit on deductions for state and local taxes, or SALT. This limit is per return, so married joint filers who list deductions on Schedule A get only a $10,000 write-off, while two single filers living together get a $20,000 write-off.
Affluent married couples hoping to buy a home in expensive areas like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., or New York could also feel a pinch. The overhaul dropped the maximum mortgage debt that’s eligible for an interest deduction on new purchases to $750,000 from about $1 million, and the limit is per return.
So an unmarried couple can deduct interest on $1.5 million of mortgage debt, while the limit for a married couple is $750,000.
For couples contemplating marriage, estimating the tax cost can be hard.
One reason is that marriage penalties often vary over time. For example, a two-earner couple may not owe a penalty when they are first married. If they become a one-earner couple when they have children, they may get a marriage bonus.
If both spouses work and prosper, however, their penalty could grow.
Says Ms. Stevenson: “People tell me, ‘I didn’t mind paying more tax when we were first married, but now it’s enough to put a dent in college tuition.’”
Laws also change. Marriage penalties removed by the 2017 overhaul will return after 2025 if Congress doesn’t act.
Yet another complication is that the U.S. tax code provides marriage bonuses, even to couples who owe marriage penalties. For example, a spouse who inherits a traditional IRA or 401(k) account has better options than a non-spouse heir.
Unmarried couples face other costs and issues, of course. They may pay more for health coverage, and they have to prepare two tax returns. They’ll need to take special care with health proxies, powers of attorney and other legal documents giving them decision-making powers over each other and children.
Married couples who currently owe penalties have options for lowering them, but not many.
One is to reduce reported income where possible, say by contributing to tax-deductible retirement plans or spreading taxable capital gains over more than one year.
Also consider the “married, filing separately” status. This choice doesn’t allow couples to file as two singles, and it usually raises taxes. But sometimes it lowers them, as when one partner has a small business that qualifies for a 20% deduction if a higher-earning spouse’s income is excluded. It could also help if one partner has high medical expenses.
How about getting divorced? That’s a lot harder than getting married. And the Internal Revenue Service for decades has had the power to disregard divorces that are solely for tax reasons.
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