NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The U.S. Tax Code: Get Married and Face Potential Penalties

April 27, 2015

One unintended feature of the United States' income tax system is that the combined tax liability of a married couple may be higher or lower than their combined tax burden if they had remained single. This is called the marriage penalty or marriage bonus.

Here are the details:

  • A marriage penalty or bonus is the change in a couple's total tax bill as a result of getting married and thus filing their taxes jointly.
  • Marriage bonuses typically occur when two individuals with disparate incomes marry.
  • Marriage penalties occur when two individuals with equal incomes marry; this is true for both high- and low-income couples.
  • Marriage bonuses can be as high as 20 percent of a couple's income, and marriage penalties can be as high as 12 percent of a couple's income.
  • While research shows that marriage penalties and bonuses do not have much effect on whether a couple will marry, they do impact how much each spouse works.

Marriage penalties and bonuses are a way that the income tax code currently violates the principle of neutrality. These penalties and bonuses potentially affect people's behavior, especially whether to work. It is possible to completely eliminate both marriage penalties and bonuses, but it would require a significant overhaul of the tax code that drastically changes the current distribution of income taxes paid. Short of a complete overhaul, it is possible to reduce marriage penalties in the tax code, such as a permanent extension of marriage penalty relief for the Earned Income Tax Credit and widening the income tax brackets for high-income taxpayers filing jointly.

Source: Kyle Pomerleau, "Understanding the Marriage Penalty and Marriage Bonus," Tax Foundation, April 23, 2015. 


Browse more articles on Tax and Spending Issues