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Should You Get Married (Or Divorced) For Tax Reasons?

PUBLISHED 5:20 PM EST | APR 15, 2015

I was super excited about doing my taxes this year. I got married last June and couldn’t wait to exercise that most glorious privilege of matrimony — the ability to file jointly.

But after my wife and I filled out our tax return, I wondered … did we actually save any money, or did we, like an estimated 38 percent1 of couples, end up having to pay more because of our new legal status?

We’re not the only ones to have wondered about this question. Nick Kasprak, a developer at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Kyle Pomerleau, an economist at the Tax Foundation, recently ran a series of simulations to figure out which married couples benefit this year and which don’t. Fortunately, they were willing to share their data with us. (They also shared it with our friends at The Upshot, who published a story about the so-called marriage penalty earlier on Wednesday. Like many of you during tax season, I was a little late to file.)

Whether you get a tax bonus by being married or end up paying the marriage penalty depends on how much income you and your partner make and how it’s divided between you. Type your own numbers in below to see how marriage affects your taxes.

When more than one child is involved, figuring out who should claim whom as a dependent gets even more complicated for an unmarried couple — so complicated that those scenarios are excluded from the analysis.

The analysis from the Tax Foundation and Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is based on a few assumptions. For one, it treats all income as wages and not, say, capital gains. It also assumes that you are taking the standard deduction and not itemizing and that you take advantage of all the tax credits available to you. The truer those assumptions are, the more accurate the estimates will be for you.

For more details on how the tax code determines who pays a marriage penalty, take a look at this discussion by Kasprak (the chart should look familiar).

Should you actually get married or divorced based on this analysis?

Probably not. Again, your estimates may or may not be fully accurate, and there are better reasons than taxes to start or end a marriage. Despite claims to the contrary, there’s no evidence that the marriage penalty deters people from getting hitched.

Source and methodology

To produce the figures for a couple with no dependents, Pomerleau and Kasprak ran 10,000 different income scenarios through a tax model they developed, looking both at the tax burden of the couple’s combined income if they were married and filing jointly and the sum of their individual tax burdens if that couple were filing as two singles. The difference is the marriage penalty or bonus.

The analysis for a couple with one dependent is similar, though additional calculations were made to determine which partner should claim the child for the biggest tax benefit.

UPDATE (April 16, 12:40 p.m.): In response to comments on Twitter, we’ve changed the color scheme of these graphics from green-and-red to blue-and-red to make it possible for people with red-green colorblindness to read them clearly.


  1. This estimate, for 2009, comes from economists James Alm of Tulane University and J. Sebastian Leguizamon of Western Kentucky University. It will be published in the National Tax Journal later this year.

Ritchie King was a senior editor for data visualization at FiveThirtyEight.