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This article was fact-checked by our editors and reviewed by Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma Tax®.
Getting married transforms virtually every aspect of your life — including your taxes.
You and your partner might not have even considered the tax benefits of marriage when you decided to exchange “I do’s.” Yet your taxes — and the credits, deductions and other tax breaks couples enjoy when they’re married filing jointly — can have a big impact on your financial future together.
Your taxes will almost certainly change after you get married, and that can affect everything from your student loans to how much money you’re able to save for a house or retirement.
Here are some things to know about the tax benefits of marriage, and other ways getting married can affect your obligations to Uncle Sam.
Things to do first
In 2017, May, June, October and September were top months for getting married, according to wedding website The Knot. And for 2018, the website says August and October will be big months for weddings.
When it comes to filing your taxes, the IRS won’t care if you wed on the first day of May or the last day of December — it will consider you married for the entire year as long as you’re married by Dec. 31 of the tax year. So a spring wedding will mean you have almost the whole year to prepare for filing your federal income taxes as married filing jointly (or separately) for the first time. A fall or holiday wedding will mean you have a little less time to prepare.
Here are three things you should consider doing soon after you get married.
- If you and/or your spouse are planning on a name change, head to your local Social Security office to record it ASAP. You’ll need to bring your marriage certificate to show evidence that you can change your name due to marriage. When you receive your new Social Security card, it’ll have your new name on it. This is important because the name on your tax return must match the name the Social Security Administration has on record for you.
- Whether you’re moving in with your new spouse, they’re moving in with you or you’re moving together into a new home, notify the IRS of your new address. You can file Form 8822 to update your mailing address with the IRS. The IRS always mails refunds (if you’re due one) to your last-known address. Not updating your address could mean your refund check gets returned to the IRS.
- Update your W-4 with your employer. This is the form your employer uses to calculate the amount of tax they withhold from your paycheck throughout the year. When you were single, you probably only took one allowance, for yourself, but now that you’re married you can take one for yourself and your spouse (provided you’ll be filing jointly). Adjusting your allowances could help you avoid overpaying taxes throughout the year. Check out the IRS withholding calculator for insight into how much tax you should have withheld.
Things to know about “married filing jointly”
When you get married, you can no longer file your taxes as single or as head of household. You’ll need to choose between “married filing jointly” and “married filing separately.”
Generally, it’s better to file jointly, says Mike Zeiter, a CPA and PFS with Foundations Financial Planning.
“If you were filing ‘single’ and are now going to be ‘married filing jointly,’ most of the calculation amounts are doubled,” Zeiter says. “Under the new tax code, there is virtually no situation where you are able to file separate and pay less in taxes.”
One reason for this is because the dreaded “marriage penalty” has been largely eliminated for most people, according to Zeiter.
To understand how the marriage penalty works, consider this: One of the oddities of the old tax code was that there were unequal income-tax-bracket cutoff points for people earning money separately versus together. While this mostly affected mid- and high-income earners with similar incomes, lower-income people could be affected too if their new joint income made them ineligible for certain tax credits for lower-income folks.
The new tax code has greatly equalized these tax brackets for most people because they’re essentially just doubled versions of what you’d pay as a single filer. In other words, tax reform has smoothed out the unequal tax brackets for married and single filers earning the same income for all but the folks in the highest income tax bracket who earn more than $600,000 per year.
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When should you file separately?
One situation in which you may want to consider filing separately from your spouse is if you have a ton of student loan debt and earn a much smaller income than your spouse.
That’s because if you have federal student loans and file for an income-driven repayment plan to ease the burden a bit, the government bases your new payment off the income reported on your tax return, including any jointly reported income.
Let’s say you earn $15,000 per year and your spouse earns $150,000. If you were to file jointly with your spouse, the government would calculate your payment based on an income of $165,000. If you were to file separately, the government may count your income as $15,000 per year, as it would not take your spouse’s income into account, and may be more likely to cut you a break.
The difference can be significant, Zeiter says.
“I will see some calculations where the payment is $400 less each month.”
In that scenario, your annual savings would be about $4,800.
If you’re on the public service loan forgiveness plan, according to Zeiter, the benefits of filing separately are even greater.
“The tax savings from filing jointly for 10 years can be insignificant compared to getting the entire loan amount forgiven after 10 years,” he says. “This is a scenario that I see where filing separately creates more wealth for a couple overall.”
The tax downsides of getting married
The so-called marriage penalty used to be one of the biggest downsides of getting married, at least in terms of your taxes. Now there are fewer tax disadvantages to getting married, but they do still exist.
A big one is that when you file your taxes as married filing jointly with your spouse, you can be equally at fault for any errors and intentional omissions, as well as any additional tax, penalties and interest that arise from those mistakes.
For example, imagine your spouse forgets to report some investment income or intentionally pads deductions. When the IRS catches the discrepancy on your joint return, you’ll both be held liable. You might have had no idea it was happening, but you may still be on the hook for the outstanding balance plus interest and penalties.
In fact, the IRS can come after you for the outstanding balance for the years that you filed with your spouse even if you end up divorcing later. It may be possible to get the IRS to drop your liability for tax fraud committed by your spouse, but you’ll need to file for Innocent Spouse Relief — a process in and of itself.
From potentially greater financial security to sharing life with someone you love, marriage has many benefits. The tax benefits of marriage may never be a driving factor in people’s decision to wed, but understanding those benefits and how to maximize them could help you feel even more blissful in your new life together.
Relevant sources: Seven Tax Tips for Recently Married Taxpayers | SSA: Program Operations Manual System (POMS) | IRS: Does the IRS Have Money Waiting for You? | Politifact: Eliminate the Marriage Penalty | U.S. Dept. of Education Blog: Something Borrowed: How Marriage Impacts Your Student Loans | IRS: Topic No. 205 Innocent Spouse Relief
Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma Tax®, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.