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single vs. married

When filing federal income taxes, everyone has to choose a filing status. There are five filing statuses: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household and qualifying widow/er with dependent child. Most people are only eligible for one or two of the statuses and your status is likely to change at some point in your life. One common change is going from filing single to filing married. In this article, let’s look at how your tax situation could change when your filing status changes from single to married.

Single vs. Married: The Filing Options

Before talking about how your taxes will change, let’s consider the IRS definitions for when you can use the single vs. married filing statuses.

In order to use the single filing status, you need to be unmarried, legally separated and/or divorced on the last day of the tax year (Dec. 31). To qualify as married in the eyes of the IRS you need to get legally married on or before the last day of the tax year.

If you can legally file as married then you must. Married individuals cannot file as single or as head of household. Keep in mind the requirements are the same for same-sex marriages. If you you were legally married by a state or foreign government, the IRS will expect you to file as married.

After marriage, you have two choices for filing statuses. Married filing separately will allow you and your spouse to file separate returns. This works very similarly to filing single. Married filing jointly should be your status choice if you want to file both your and your spouse’s incomes on one return. Filing only one return could save you time and money. Choosing one status over the other will result in different limits for tax brackets, deductions and credits.

How the Filing Process Changes From Single to Married

The clearest example of how your taxes will change after marriage is in the income tax brackets. The tables below show the tax brackets for the 2017 and 2018 tax years (what you file in April 2018 and April 2019, respectively). You’ll notice that if you choose to file a joint return, the minimum and maximum incomes will change for each tax bracket. In some cases, married couples will find themselves in a lower tax bracket now that they are combining incomes. At the same time, married individuals who file separately will pay income taxes according to the same brackets as single filers.

2017 FEDERAL INCOME TAX BRACKETS
Single Filers and
Married Filing Separately
Married Filing Jointly Tax Rate
$0 – $9,325 $0 – $18,650 10.0%
$9,325 – $37,950 $18,650 – $75,900 15.0%
$37,950 – $91,900 $75,900 – $153,100 25.0%
$91,900 – $191,650 $153,100 – $233,350 28.0%
$191,650 – $416,700 $233,350 – $416,700 33.0%
$416,700 – $418,400 $416,700 – $470,700 35.0%
$418,400+ $470,700+ 39.6%
2018 FEDERAL INCOME TAX BRACKETS
Single Filers and
Married Filing Separately
Married Filing Jointly Tax Rate
$0 – $9,525 $0 – $19,050 10.0%
$9,526 – $38,700 $19,051 – $77,400 12.0%
$38,701 – $82,500 $77,401 – $165,000 22.0%
$82,501 – $157,500 $165,000 – $315,000 24.0%
$157,501 – $200,000 $315,001 – $400,000 32.0%
$200,001 – $500,000 $400,001 – $600,000 35.0%
$500,001+ $600,001+ 37.0%

Outside of income taxes, filing a joint return will change limits for other deductions. For example, the standard deduction for the 2017 tax year is $6,350 for single filers (it will rise to $12,000 for 2018). The deduction for taxpayers who are married and file jointly is $12,700 in 2017 (it’s $24,000 in 2018). In this case, the deduction is doubled for joint filers. That isn’t always the case though. As another example, single filers can deduct up to $3,000 of capital gains losses from income. A married couple filing jointly can only deduct $3,000 total (not $3,000 each).

Check Your Withholding Information

single vs. married

One big change that comes with marriage is how you report withholding. Normally, you fill out your W-4 to reflect how many total exemptions you can take. After marriage, you and your spouse need to distribute your exemptions between your W-4 forms. So if you and your spouse each qualify for two exemptions (four total), the number of exemptions on your W-4 forms should add up to four. You cannot each take four exemptions. If you claim more exemptions than you should, your employers will not withhold enough paycheck taxes and you will owe money when you file your taxes.

The Bottom Line

single vs. married

If you get married on or before the last day of the tax year (Dec. 31), your filing status for that year is married. However, you still need to decide between the statuses of married filing jointly and married filing separately. Filing jointly will result in one tax return. That makes filing simpler (and cheaper) but won’t allow all couples to maximize tax benefits.

Tips for Maximizing You Tax Savings

  • Filing taxes no longer has to be stressful thanks to a number of user-friendly tax services. They can also help you find deductions or exemptions that you might have missed. We broke down the two most popular tax filing services, H&R Block and TurboTax.
  • Consult a financial advisor if you’re unsure how you should file or how your taxes will change by filing jointly or separately. A financial advisor can also help you plan your finances now that you and your spouse will be sharing certain expenses. Our financial advisor matching tool can pair you with up to three local advisors who meet your specific needs. All you need to do is answer some questions about your situation and goals.
  • Once you file your taxes, you may learn that you have a big tax refund coming your way. Here’s a refund schedule we’ve created to give you an idea when you can expect your money.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/ragıp ufuk vural, ©iStock/alfexe, ©iStock/AndreyPopov

Derek Silva, CEPF® Derek Silva is determined to make personal finance accessible to everyone. He writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SmartAsset, serving as a retirement and credit card expert. Derek is a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing and a Certified Educator in Personal Finance® (CEPF®). He has a degree from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and has spent time as an English language teacher in the Portuguese autonomous region of the Azores. The message Derek hopes people take away from his writing is, “Don’t forget that money is just a tool to help you reach your goals and live the lifestyle you want.”
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