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Marriage Bonus

A marriage bonus is when a household’s overall tax bill decreases due to a couple marrying and filing taxes jointly. Marriage bonuses typically occur when two individuals with disparate incomes marry. Marriage penalties are also possible.

Mechanics of a Marriage Bonus

The federal government and most states double the bracket widths that apply to single filers for joint filers to avoid a sizable marriage penalty, but for some couples, this results in a marriage bonus. When an individual with a higher income marries and files jointly with an individual with a much lower income, the additional income is usually not enough to push the couple’s combined income into a higher tax bracket. However, due to the much wider income tax brackets for married individuals, more of the higher earner’s income falls into lower tax brackets. The result is a lower tax bill.

Suppose an unmarried couple earned a total of $100,000, but the distribution was unequal: $20,000 from the first partner and $80,000 from the second. As an unmarried couple, their combined federal income tax bill is $15,593. When the couple gets married and combines their incomes, their taxable income remains the same while their tax brackets become wider. This means that more of income as a married couple is taxed at the 10 and 12 percent marginal rates and less at the 22 percent marginal rate. As a result, their combined tax bill would fall by $2,013 to $13,580.

Couple’s Income Subject to Each Tax Bracket
Bracket Filing Separately Filing Jointly
10% $19,750 $19,750
12% $40,375 $60,500
22% $39,875 $19,750
Source: Tax Foundation calculations.

The same effect exists at the state level. A state-level marriage bonus can also arise when the standard deduction for married taxpayers is more than double the standard deduction for single filers, as is the case in Alabama, Iowa, and Oregon.

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