Ask Team Practical: The Tax Man Cometh

Marriage, domestic partnerships, and taxes

Q: My fiancé and I are a straight couple who will be getting a registered domestic partnership this summer. The reason we’ve opted for the partnership, instead of a federally recognized marriage, is financial: the tax system is structured in a way to provide a marriage benefit, but only if one person makes a lot less than the other.

When I ran the numbers I realized that we would be paying thousands of dollars more (like, more than five) in taxes if we were married. PER YEAR. While there are certainly tons of financial benefits for marriage, none of them would actually benefit us in our current situation. So we decided that we would get a domestic partnership instead—where we live, these are available to couples regardless of sexual orientation. Great, right? Domestic partners enjoy the same rights locally, just not federally, as married partners, so we can commit ourselves legally to one another without getting the federal government involved at all. We may choose to get federally married down the line, but that’s about as significant to our relationship as choosing to itemize or take the standard deduction. It matters because of money, but it doesn’t affect our commitment, emotions, or day-to-day lives. So, a wedding ceremony plus domestic partnership (plus lots of other contracts, trusts, and living wills that are necessary to fully integrate our finances and legal stuff) is scheduled for this summer.

My fiancé and I are both quite pleased with ourselves for working this out, but I’ve been less pleased at people’s reactions. I was fully prepared for acquaintances or certain conservative relatives to be rude about it. But when good friends make offhand comments like, “You’re not really getting married,” it hurts my feelings. A lot. And I’m also tired of it. I just want to be excited for my wedding without dealing with explaining the tax code every goddamn time. This isn’t something I’m looking to upgrade. This isn’t a not-really-wedding. What if, instead of paying multiple thousands of dollars to the federal government every year, I just set a thousand dollars on fire as part of the ceremony? Would that be commitment enough for people? Of course the legal status of relationships is important, but I’m not inviting people to my wedding for legal reasons.

I know my wedding will be real. In fact, I would argue that it will be more real than many unions that have received the federal government stamp of approval. But the whole point of having a ceremony (for me anyway) is to have the important people in my life acknowledge and witness that commitment. Hearing “It’s not a real marriage” makes me realize (and wonder who else feels the same but hasn’t said) that some of the people who’ve been invited aren’t really witnesses to that at all.

My actual question is twofold: One: What do you say to someone you’re close to who says that your marriage isn’t real? If people already know the full story, I don’t know how else to convey to them that this is as real as it’s gonna get. Two: One of the privileges I have as a straight person is to just not say anything and “pass”—i.e., stop telling people we’ve invited that we’re getting a domestic partnership and let them assume we’re getting a federal marriage. This also doesn’t feel great, because it feels like we’re keeping it a secret, but I’m not ashamed of this at all! So do I tell, or not?

What do you think?

Economic Rationality is Less Popular than I Thought


Dear ERiLPtIT,


No one but the two of you get to decide how real your marriage is. No one. You decide how your marriage is ratified, and who gets a vote in that. What a great freedom the two of you will have, to decide what your marriage means, and what it will look like throughout your lifetime. And yes, that great freedom comes with the knowledge that you will have to explain for the rest of your lives that just because it doesn’t look traditional doesn’t mean it’s not real. But it doesn’t matter what they think. It matters what you think.

If you don’t tell, if you don’t sing it from the rooftops, if you coast behind straight privilege because it’s easier and because you’re tired (which is fair!), then I wonder if you run the risk of thinking your commitment is something not worth sharing with the world and is something to be hidden and something shameful. So tell, and often.

But your email got me thinking, and you know I can’t leave it there, so settle in.


From this vantage point, as a queer woman married to another woman, I deeply empathize with how badly it stings that your people aren’t recognizing the commitment you’re making to your person. Last week a well-meaning person asked me if my wedding had been traditional, “Like a regular one.” You and I both know that she didn’t mean to toss that micro-aggression at me, that she didn’t mean to remind me that I still stand on the outside. We both know the question came from a place of genuine interest, and hopefully a place of educating herself. And still, how it smarted to be Other, to be a curiosity.

A friend of mine has a postcard wedged on her fridge: “Congrats, you’re getting married! That’s like telling the cops you’re in love.” It does seem a bit ludicrous that many queer people prioritize marriage equality above all else. Why aren’t we all fighting for the recognition of alternative solemnizations of partnerships? As you’ve proved with your question, we already know they’re happening all over. We don’t know to what extent couples are filing paperwork, and it’s also none of our business, really. If you say you’re married, then that’s good enough for me. It only matters that it means something to the two of you, and your great work and joy is figuring out what, precisely.


I keep wondering about how you’ve decided not to get federally married due to a single tax issue, the marriage penalty. I am dead sure you will create an authentic, meaningful, permanent union. I think of my friends in Mississippi and Missouri and North Dakota who have done just that in the face of their states prohibiting their marriages, and there’s no doubt that they are as emotionally wedded as I am, and you will be too. I’m just not sure a domestic partnership can replicate the emotional, legal, financial, and permanent benefits of federal marriage. I mean, that’s why my friends in Mississippi and Missouri and North Dakota would really like access to full legal marriage, no matter what it does to their taxes. So to answer the question more thoroughly, I went to the experts.


I asked Rus Garofalo of Brass Taxes what, precisely, the marriage penalty is, and he explained thus:

“The basic premise behind US tax code is that if you’re making a lot of money, you should pay more taxes than those who earn lower salaries. The marriage penalty isn’t a fixed concept, but depends on what the current income brackets are, and those can vary with the political tides. If you and your spouse earn over a certain amount of money, then a portion of your joint income will fall into a certain income tax bracket. That portion of your income will be taxed at a higher rate than it would if you were single. Depending on the year, that rate might increase or decrease. But that doesn’t mean that all your money jumps into a higher tax bracket, just that portion.” (Editor’s note: more detailed information here.)

Conversely, the marriage penalty becomes a marriage bonus for a couple where one spouse is making less than the other—meaning that the stay-at-home parents, part-timers, or those supporting their spouses in other non-financial ways pay less tax when the couple files jointly. As Rus pointed out, income tax brackets shift from year to year, so keep in mind that you might not always be in the boat you’re in now. What if one of you loses your job, or stays home for a while to raise a kid? Wouldn’t you want the marriage bonus? You can’t, after all, just divorce and re-marry whenever it suits your taxes. (Nor are the financial realities and laws of marriage just about taxes, but we’ll get to that.)


My partner K and I are in the same boat as you. Now that we’re married, we got less back from our taxes last year than we would have if we filed as unmarried people. Essentially, we made more money from the system, and paid more into the system, than we would have if we were making less. (And someday, when I wear K down enough, we will make less and will benefit from the marriage bonus, because I will convince her that I should quit my day job to write the Great American Blog Novel.)

This all actually seems pretty fair to me, as I come from the public health perspective, where we who are healthy should pitch in to shore up our sick and aged, since we will eventually be those sick and aged.  Ideally, those making a higher income pitch in more than those who don’t for the resources we all use. Paying taxes isn’t all bad: you’re supporting veterans’ care, paved roads, national parks, schools, and libraries, to name a few. And yes, drones, which I’m not so thrilled about, and that’s why we need to actively participate to change those systems—rather than opt-out.

“Paying taxes is when you put your money where your mouth is,” said Rus. “The sum I sometimes tell people they owe triggers a flight or fight reaction. But that’s when you pay for the things you say you agree with theoretically.” (Like, say, public schools. Or roads.)


Can you actually replicate the myriad legal protections of marriage by substituting a domestic partnership? Can you really contract out the thousands of status points afforded by marriage? Theoretically, I suppose you can come pretty close (as long as neither of you die), and this is where your straight privilege might come into play.

Should you have children, most people will presume your male partner is the father. If your kid breaks her arm on the playground and your partner goes to pick her up, theoretically no one is going to prevent him from taking that kid to the ER even though his custody rights aren’t automatic, the way they’d be if you were federally married. If you are in the hospital, and your partner wants to stay past general visitation hours, most people will probably assume he’s your husband and let it go. You guys probably won’t face the same reflexive “no” that queer couples might.

But all it takes is one person, one grouchy night nurse, to push this issue. And that’s what tipped my scales in favor of getting federally married.  I feel a hell of a lot better knowing that we have a bevy of protections (flimsy though they might still be) from our federally recognized marriage, not to mention that K will also inherit my social security benefits, should the system stick around that long, and retirement or 401(k) accounts without tax consequences. Or! She’ll inherit that fabulous rambling home in Maine that we’re going to buy for me to write my novel in. (Remember Edie Windsor, and her $363,053 tax bill on the apartment they’d lived in for decades?) You can hire a fleet of expensive lawyers to monitor everything you do, and set up elaborate systems to deal with those hypothetical situations, but it will cost you time and money (and if it were me, emotional stress) to try to replicate the benefits of marriage through another hugely detailed legal contract. Ultimately, I wonder if the money you’re saving by avoiding the marriage penalty might be lost in all you’ll need to do in order to constantly monitor the loose ends. Plus, there are some loose ends you’re just never going to be able to tie up. Like those social security benefits, or inheritance tax.

And What If…? (Life Is Long)

Speaking of ends, what happens if things don’t go the way you’ve planned? “Getting a divorce is way more expensive than dissolving a Domestic Partnership, depending on where you get the DP. Sometimes dissolving a DP is as easy as going to the county office where you registered, and filling out a form,” says Bevin Bermingham, Esq., a local Brooklyn attorney. “Divorce often involves waiting periods and expensive filing fees, often more than what it costs to get married, and can be difficult to do on your own without an attorney. But the whole reason divorce is expensive and difficult is to protect people from getting screwed over by their spouses. Divorce laws protect the vulnerable spouse.” One day you could be that more vulnerable partner, and in a domestic partnership, your protections are pretty much nil.

Ultimately, yes, you will be shelling out more taxes if you are part of a dual high-earning couple. But there are also huge benefits and peace of mind that come from being inside this system. Yes, I think it’s problematic that this is the relationship model that’s privileged and put forth as the best and only in our system, and boy did I go on about it last year. But at the end of it all, I sleep easier at night knowing that if I unexpectedly die, K would automatically receive my life insurance without a huge fight (and another tax hit, thank you again Edie Windsor), and that in our home state, at least, no one is going to question her full custody of our children. That’s worth it for me.

Team Practical, have at it. If you’re in a domestic partnership, why did you choose to go that route, and how have you attempted to replicate the benefits and protection of marriage? If you’re married, divorced or widowed, would you have done it differently?

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  • Jennifer

    Great advice, Elizabeth. I work in Human Resources, and while I don’t currently do health or retirement benefits administration, I used to. If you are dual income couple with both of you having good health insurance plans, that part is moot. However, like Elizabeth touched on a bit, there are pretty significant tax penalties to leaving assets (such as a retirement plan) to your non-legal spouse. Not to mention the extremely significant tax penalties if you decide to get family health coverage and you are adding a non-legal spouse.

    I am not saying this to discourage you because it sounds like you and your fiancé have gone about this in an extremely thoughtful manner and have decided this is the best path for you right now. But there are very real benefits to being legally married that have nothing to do with nosy people and their opinions. (That shit is ridiculous. If we were friends, after I reminded you of the above and make sure you consider it carefully, I would certainly not think LESS of your union from an emotional standpoint.) However, that said, there is nothing stopping you from going to City Hall 5 years from now, say, and getting legally married at that time, either.

    • Christina McPants

      I was also going to comment on the healthcare tax. If you’re not federally married and your spouse is on your health insurance, you’ll be taxed on your employer premium payments for your spouse. It’s pretty hefty – I think my paycheck went up $150 (for every two weeks) when DOMA passed. Additionally, if you get laid off, you can continue your healthcare coverage under COBRA, but your spouse can’t (again, my understanding). It sounds like you both have good jobs and presumably both can receive health insurance through your employer, so this may not be an issue, but it is something that could happen.

      I also agree with Jennifer that this seems to be a plan that works for you for now and it is changeable. There are serious legal benefits to federal marriage (trust me, I know all about that!), but a lot of them kick in when you’re dealing with major life / financial issues like house buying, babies, etc… There’s nothing to stop you going to City Hall and having a private civil ceremony if/when babies come into the picture or you quit your job to start your own business or get laid off or whatever.

      My other question – would there be an implications if there is some kind of issue while you’re traveling abroad and aren’t legally married? I can’t imagine what they would be unless you both are spies or get caught in an Arab Spring kind of situation, but something else to think about.

      • Eh

        Having travelled with a common-law partner abroad I can tell you that different countries treat you differently. I was able to go through customs with my partner when we flew to France but when we flew to the States (I’m from Canada) we would have to go through customs separately.

      • Jules

        You straight up wouldn’t be allowed to travel together in Saudi, not that it’s easy or you would try anyway, because it’s only allowed with brother or husband. I don’t think they would know what to make of partner, and based on SO’s experience with visa/travel issues over there, it’s more headache than it’s worth.

        I also think maybe you could run into issues if one of you was hospitalized abroad, and the other had trouble proving rights as spouse. Though, I’m not sure how you normally go about this. Wave a bejeweled hand in their face? Show them your ID? (Probably would be easier you had both these things and you shared a last name, I doubt anyone would ask for more) Yet, it’s funny, because neither a ring (or its absence) nor your last name necessarily prove anything as far as married or partnered. So, I dunno.

        • Eh

          Someone I know rented a car in Florida with his wife. The car rental agent said that since they had different last names they couldn’t prove they were married and they would have to pay for insurance for both of them on the car but if they had the same last name then they would only have to pay for the insurance for one of them and it would cover both of them.
          My cousin does not have the same last name as her husband and her son has her last name. She was accused of trying to abduct her son when she went to the US with him and her husband.

          • Glen

            These types of things confuse me, since in multiple other cultures the wife does not take the husband’s name when married. But I carry a copy of my daughter’s birth certificate with me when we travel. Apparently I should carry a copy of the marriage license too. All this to appease stupid people…..

        • ElisabethJoanne

          It actually really surprises me how rarely I’ve had to prove I’m legally married. When we first got married and I added my husband to my health insurance, they needed the marriage license. But when I switched employers, no one asked for the license when we went on the new health plan. Likewise, as a personal injury attorney handling loss of consortium and wrongful death claims, we rarely insist on documentary proof that people are/were married. And the IRS doesn’t require evidence of marriage, either.

      • StevenPortland

        A spouse enjoys “spousal privilege” which means that if you ever find yourself in court then your spouse can decline from testifying against you. It also means that communications between the spousals are privileged and can’t be used. I know, it is one of those things that we say will never happen to us, but there have been several stories over the years where same-sex partners were forced to testify because they weren’t legally married. One famous one is when Rosie O’Donnell was sued and all of her emails and discussions with her partner were found to be non-privileged.

  • I…am a little uncomfortable that this boils down to, “We’re a straight couple who wants all the benefits of marriage but none of the disadvantages.” Because it feels a little…loophole-y? Lots of rich, straight people get legally married and pay higher taxes. Is that wrong or unfair? I…guess that depends on your politics. Maybe I’m missing something, and, of course, I don’t know the ins and outs of her finances, but I’m not clear on why the letter writer feels they deserve to pay less in taxes than other high-earning, straight, we’re-in-this-for-the-long-haul married couples. If I had to guess, I’d say that’s why people aren’t more on board with the domestic partnership. If your friends are paying thousands and thousands of dollars more in their taxes each year (or your friends are just broke and cannot relate to this even a little bit) and then they hear that you don’t want to do that (even though you legally can) BUT you still want the wedding and to be recognized as married at dinner parties…I could see that leading to some negative attitudes about it.

    • Sarah

      But by not getting legally married and paying more taxes, this couple is losing out many benefits of a married couple. They are not getting all of the benefits of marriage as Elisabeth numerated above.

      • Right, but the LW doesn’t see it that way; she sees it as all the important benefits they need. And if she’s telling her friends what she said in her letter (“Domestic partners enjoy the same rights locally, just not federally, as married partners” and she’s making it clear it’s for financial/tax reasons), then they are going to hear it as “we want all the benefits.” And it sounds like they still want the social benefits of marriage too.

        • Alyssa M

          I would say this is a very… political issue… to me “economic rationality is less popular than I thought” sounds very similar to Romney saying “Ofcourse I pray less in taxes, it would be stupid of me not to take every dollar I could get back” while his opponents were outraged that he paid so little by taking advantage of the tax code…

          You and I balk at the idea of using a DP as a tax loophole… while they just see it as fiscally responsible…

          • Heh…I tried very, very hard to write my comment without using the words “Mitt Romney.” Because yeah, I had the same thought when reading this. But! It is a political issue; my thought was that if the letter writer’s friends see it like you or I do, it might explain why they are being less than supportive of the idea.

        • Katie

          Yeah, I struggle with the comment “domestic partners enjoy the same rights locally” because that’s not true in every state (I would be surprised if it was 100% true in any state), and in my opinion, undermines the fight for marriage equality.

          • Jules

            I both agree with that undermining and also wonder about it a little bit. What about the states in which the ONLY option is still partnership, or going to a different state to get married? Let’s say you’re a couple in Colorado. I can imagine it REALLY hurts if people were to retort “But you’re not really getting married” when you discuss the wedding. (It’s definitely different when the couple HAS the option and isn’t taking it, true)

            And yeah, at the same time, I agree that pretending that partnership and marriage are equal (and therefore a good enough solution) is a large setback in that fight.

    • Jules

      The last bit – the recognized as married at parties – it seems like this is something you’ll kind of have to explain or correct for the rest of ever, unless you DO actually get married. Because at least in our state, presenting yourselves as such….kind of makes it a real marriage…at least if you ever formalize it. The second page of this is particularly interesting.

      What really bothers me is the remarks her friends are making. They’re hurtful. I can see how you might feel resentful, but ultimately….your friend is making a public, loving commitment, and it’s a shame that LW doesn’t feel supported in that. Instead, everyone seems focused on the (rather large) detail of what the union is to be called. I guess it’s one thing if they’re trying to point out the things Elizabeth mentioned when they’re saying “you’re not really getting married…[and as such, be careful about X and Y, and make sure to consider Z, and congratulations can’t wait]”, but it’s entirely another if it’s just thrown out there as a way to burst her bubble.

      • Alyssa M

        Yes, honestly, regardless of how I feel about their reasoning… I agree with you. Were they deciding to have a ceremony without any legal recognition at all… It’s still a marriage, at least emotionally. And the emotional commitment is all her friends and family should really be concerned about… I have several friends who have chosen that because of their political ideas about the institution of marriage as a whole, but still I recognize their commitment is the same as mine.

    • Sarah E

      To me, the letter boils down to “My friends and family are making hurtful comments about my commitment, how can I best address them?” Diving off into the economics or politics of her decision aren’t really what the LW asked about. You’re right that being sensitive to WHY her loved ones are reacting as they are is a good idea all around. I’d just ask that you be careful in your interpretation. Nowhere did she indicate she “deserved” to pay lower taxes. But she wishes to. And in this particular context, she and her partner have made their decision about marriage firmly.

      Politically, I’m with you. I can’t stand sneaky people screwing over the public to benefit themselves (even further) financially. However, in this case, the letter writer isn’t asking for public comment on her partnership decision, just help with how to respond firmly yet kindly to her loved ones.

      • Laura C

        Well, given that the LW gave all that backstory, she must feel it’s relevant. And I feel it’s relevant, for sure! I don’t know, maybe she doesn’t give the backstory to everyone she talks to and maybe her friends would have the same response no matter her reasons for doing a domestic partnership rather than a federal marriage, but if one of my friends laid out these reasons for going with partnership over marriage, I’d give it the side-eye for a whole bunch of reasons, Mitt Romney and his ilk being one of them. Whereas when people have said to me “I’m not getting federal married until everyone can,” that’s another story entirely. So while I wouldn’t say to someone “your relationship is worth less because you’re not married,” if someone said to me “I’ve done a financial cost-benefit analysis and I’m not going to get married because taxes” … I wouldn’t be like “wow, awesome.”

        • Sarah E

          Again, my caution is in parsing out “all that backstory.” Upon re-reading, the backstory she included was that she’s choosing domestic partnership because of financial reasons, particularly avoiding a $5000+ penalty. She doesn’t include her city of residence, field of employment, further expenditures or insight into her lifestyle. It’s easy to assume, given the one figure she cites, that she can afford it. However, that’s still an assumption. It’s also a major assumption into the financial and political standing of her friends who are making hurtful comments.

          “I’m not getting federal married until everyone can” is a statement that aligns with your (and my) values, but in the same case, family and friends *could* make hurtful comments in the same vein that their relationship isn’t “real” or jump in with a slew of protests including all the benefits of federal marriage that Elizabeth laid out in her answer.

          My main point is not that her decision about marriage is right or wrong, but that she wasn’t asking for help with her personal economic decisions, but with how to handle the commentary from friends and loved ones. A note to check her class privilege? Sure, completely appropriate. But a note that her economic decisions are *deserving* of a side-eye because politics? I think that’s off-base in this context.

          • Liz

            I’ll reiterate what I said above. We often use ATP questions as a jumping off point for a larger discussion. If the question is, “How do I respond to my friends?!” it completely makes sense to parse out the different perspectives folks may have of this already-made-decision.

          • Jeannie

            Liz, I think using the ATP question for a jumping off point is great. I think criticizing the OP for not choosing to have a “real” marriage (which many of these comments and the Elizabeth’s response do) when she wrote in asking for ways to deal with the criticism is wrong. I am unhappy with the response not just by those reading and commenting but particularly by regular contributors/staff members (Elizabeth, Rachel).

          • Liz

            Wherein does Elisabeth say that?! If anything, she spends the entire first portion of her response validating the LW’s choice!

            “I am dead sure you will create an authentic, meaningful, permanent union.”

          • Maddie Eisenhart

            I think there’s some confusion between Elisabeth’s response and the comments here. As Liz mentioned, I think Elisabeth IS validating domestic partnerships, while also explaining the legal ramifications of a domestic partnership vs. marriage. It feels like helpful information to have, since there’s been a lot of talk about domestic partnerships and why they aren’t up to snuff in recent marriage equality conversations.

            That said, while it’s perfectly fine to disagree with Elisabeth or offer alternative advice, I think it doesn’t further the conversation to criticize how Elisabeth answered the question. That doesn’t really help the letter writer or anyone else in her situation.

            I’d also say the one part of this conversation I’m really not comfortable with is speculation about her income level. That might not be a part of this thread (so many threads!), but reverse engineering that info feels a bit like an invasion of privacy, if she didn’t volunteer that information.

          • leafygreen

            “Reverse engineering that info feels a bit like an invasion of privacy” — that is a really, really good point. I got caught up in the analytical “let’s all get informed about tax code!” part and lost sight of the consequences there, myself.

          • Emily

            Come on guys, anyone who has paid taxes read that “more than 5k” bit and thought “ok this chick has a lot of money.” She choose to shatr that information.Plus, for the record, there will always be a marriage penalty. The government can either give partners with disparate incomes a penalty or give partners with similar incomes a penalty..

          • leafygreen

            Sure, it’s difficult not to notice (and maybe be curious just how much money we are talking about), but discussing it on a public forum…I dunno. She didn’t tell us how much she makes or how much of a hardship the extra tax would be, just that it was a sizable amount.

            Given that she didn’t give us any other income-related details, I think it was more intended to evoke something like “wow! if I could save $5000 by giving up something that wasn’t that important to me, I probably would, too” without giving up more information, and it’s good to respect that.

          • Liz

            Two different moderators have now asked that we stop making assumptions about what the LW makes and can afford. From here on out, I’ll be deleting further comments in that vein.

          • Class of 1980

            There will always be a marriage penalty? Why? There does not have to be any marriage penalty.

          • June

            Or tax everyone as an individual. I think that this is the obvious way to correct for the marriage penalty.

          • Alyssa M

            Yeeah… that reverse engineering felt pretty icky to me… I was hoping one of you guys would say something about it…

          • Liz

            Basically it is frustrating to have comments saying, “This response wasn’t helpful to the letter writer!” and then derail from actually responding to the letter writer to instead tear into Elisabeth!

          • Laura C

            Well, we can agree to disagree. To me, discussion of the tax-based reasoning was close to half the letter, so there’s a fair presumption that it’s an important part of what we’re discussing even if it wasn’t asked as a question. If she didn’t think it was important, the LW could have just said “for reasons we’ve thought through and discussed between ourselves, we’ve made this decision, how do we respond when people are rude about it?”

            I’m going to be honest, also, the whole “we could light the money on fire” thing was extremely grating. As Lollygagger9 says elsewhere in this thread, “I don’t see that 5,000 dollars as money we lit on fire – I see it as more SNAP and WIC dollars available. I like paved roads, public transit and knowing the fire department will come if I call 911. … I hate the wars we have picked these past years but I protest politically.” That’s pretty much where I am, and I don’t like seeing a well-off person (maybe the LW is in some unusual category where she would pay a significant amount of extra taxes because of marriage without being a very high earner. But the extremely strong odds, given the $5,000 estimate, are that these are high-earning people) taking the view that higher taxes = lighting money on fire, and in a tone that suggests she’s to be congratulated on her logic rather than questioned for her relation to the public good.

          • Class of 1980

            Why the assumption that $5,000 dollars is better put to use as tax money?

            Tax money goes to a lot of items (including interest on the national debt), but non-taxed money isn’t exactly of no benefit. Non-taxed money can go into spending which directly helps our economy. Non-taxed money can go into interest-bearing accounts and that money is available to lend to people in the form of mortgages or business loans. Non-taxed money can go into investing in companies who use it for capital to expand.

            I’m not understanding why people automatically think the money is always of more use in the hands of government than circulating freely.

    • Frances

      Why aren’t we asking why it’s expected that “rich, straight people get legally married and pay higher taxes.” I wasn’t a Romney supporter, but I think it’s wrong that when two people get married it’s expected they will have to pay more taxes than if they weren’t married. And I also think it’s wrong to assume that the OP is rich, because the marriage penalty applies to people making just above the national median income — and depending upon where you live this may or may not be enough to be considered “rich.” I live in an urban area (where I need to live in order to have the type of job I want in my field) and so pay 1/4 of our combined salary in housing (for a two bedroom apt in a 100-yr-old house that we don’t own), nearly 1/3 of our combined salary in child care (for my almost 1-yr-old son), and a good portion of our remaining salary (except of course this comes out first) on taxes. I don’t even own a smart phone because I can’t budget in monthly data costs (my husband does have one) and have purchased less than ten articles of clothing in the last year and a half (a period during which my weight fluctuated by 30 pounds because, oh yeah, I’ve been pregnant or nursing during this time). No one that knows how I live or who I am would call me rich but I am susceptible to the marriage penalty because I’ve chosen to work instead of being a stay-at-home mom. I do sometimes wonder why I decided to get legally married (for the other benefits I suppose, but mostly because that’s just what people where I’m from do) but more often I wonder why the marriage penalty exists because I don’t have any fewer costs than I did when I was living with my husband before we were married (actually I now have a child, so I have so many more). And what I’m wondering after reading this thread is why aren’t more supposed-feminists upset by a national tax policy that penalizes couples who want to commit to each other and maintain equality (at least equality in terms of how much they earn)!

      • leafygreen

        “The marriage penalty applies to people making just above the national median income” — that’s interesting, any marriage tax penalty calculator I can find says there’s no penalty for equal incomes until we get into the $90,000ish range each, and that the extra tax only exceeds $1k when you get over $100,000 each.

        I have no experience with filing jointly as a married couple — is there something I am missing?

        • A

          My husband and I each make in the 60-70k range. Next year will be our first time filing jointly, and we will most definitely be paying more together than we would filing separately.

          • leafygreen

            Do you know why? Based on marginal tax brackets alone, that shouldn’t be true. Is it deductions? Other factors?

            Again, just trying to learn!

          • Lollygagger9

            For us it was the withholding calculations that screwed us up. When we changed to ‘married’ withholding, they took less out because the calculator assumed one spouse makes less (or no) money. That resulted in our hefty tax bill in April. Now we both withhold as single, so they are taking out basically what they did before we were married, which means that unless one of us gets a giant raise, we shouldn’t owe next year.

          • leafygreen

            Ah, that makes sense, and it sucks that the withholding was so far off.

            But that is a difference in the amount owed come April, not a difference in overall tax liability. When someone says they are paying more together than separately I am generally assuming they mean overall, not in the amount owed when taxes are filed?

            I would definitely say we should make it easier than it currently is to accurately withhold the correct amount for minimal liability in April, though.

          • jashshea

            Same thing happened to us. My husband was filing 0, I was filing 1, but we were both filing married. We got hit with a pretty ugly bill in April.

            My CPA explained that the married withholding table has no way of knowing the total household income and therefore assumes that one check is the total (which, yah, outdated much?).

            So…we’re penalized because you basically need to be a CPA to understand the tables, but the actual “penalty” is when the two married people pay more in tax than they would as singles, all other things held equal:


            Anyway, we both file 0 now and have to have more taken out of each check so that we don’t end up with a bill again next year. I should have known better when I saw so larger checks post marriage!

          • Kara

            This is exactly what my husband and I do! We figured out after our first pay check that if we didn’t mark our W-2’s as “withhold as single” then we’d owe so much for taxes. Basically, by marking ourselves as married but without at single, we just barely get a refund–like this year it was $50, so just about spot on!

          • A

            I believe it’s due to deductions. I can’t remember exactly…I just know that we used some IRS withholding calculator shortly after we got married, and found out that we should each be withholding more. I will have to look at it more closely come tax season.

          • KB

            I am not sure how this is the case? I believe you are both in the 25% tax bracket now and your combined income would be as well.

        • Frances

          Try this calculator: Enter 30,000 for each person with 1 child under age 13. For me it says your marriage penalty is $1,989.

          Honestly, though, I never used a calculator and can’t remember our exact penalty, which may have only been in the hundreds (for other reasons we couldn’t really file married but separate). Moreover, Massachusetts, where we live, allows you to subtract rent up to some amount from your total income for state tax purposes — this amount is much lower than anything we actually pay but you can do it twice if you’re “roommates” (not married), but only once if you’re married. I don’t like the insinuation in these comments that I should want to pay more taxes (do any of you decide to give more money to the federal government instead of your favorite charity?), but mostly I don’t like the principle of this. After having a child and knowing that most, if not all of my after tax income would go to childcare, it was really hard to decide to work. I did because I want a career longterm (and in my field you can’t take a break and opt back in later, it’s hard enough to get a job without breaks) and because I want to be a rolemodel for women having a career for my son and other future children. I don’t think the government should be penalizing my choice to earn at the same level as my husband and to be married. I’m all for a progressive tax code, but I think it should be done on an individual basis and not for a household (especially since households have changed greatly since the tax code was written).

          • leafygreen

            Oh, so in this case it would be to do with children. I was using that calculator, but wasn’t working with the dependents part at all.

            In particular, it looks like a child adds to the deduction of a single parent, but not of a married couple.

            I’m torn on the consequences of that. From this perspective, it means a married couple with a kid pays more taxes than if they weren’t married. But, from the other perspective, it seems like maybe a single parent could use more of a tax break than a married parent, and I’m guessing that’s where this quirk of the tax code comes from.

            Thanks for the information!

          • Alyssa M

            I would guess that’s exactly where it comes in… it’ not a penalty for the married couple… it’s a break for the single parent…

          • Original Poster

            I’d just like to add that this estimate of the marriage tax penalty includes only federal taxes. If (as in our case) you also pay state and city income taxes, then you can expect it to be greater.

      • Class of 1980

        Here’s an MSN Money article – 7 TAX REASONS NOT TO GET MARRIED. It even affects medical expense deductions.

        There have been many articles about older retired couples choosing not to marry because of benefits being reduced or taxes going up. They simply can’t afford it.

        • Sandy

          Thanks for this, Class of 1980.

          • Class of 1980

            You’re welcome. As I understand it, there are many couples who have been advised by their accountants not to get remarried!

    • Fiona

      I was really dwelling on this article and trying to figure out where I stand with regards to what ERILPTIT is thinking with the domestic partnership, and I think this is EXACTLY it.
      It also seems slightly unwise to take the BENEFITS that go with legal marriage while just assuming that companies, hospitals, et cetera will comply with your desire to be considered married.

    • Kats

      We paid a big marriage penalty when we got married. It’s not that either of us are start-up gazillionaires, but the narrowing of the tax brackets can really whack you when you have two professionals whose income is all taxed as salary rather than investment. And I’m sure there are folks out there who would say – as Elizabeth seems to – that that is “fair” and “right”, that we had the resources to do it and thus somehow we “owed” it to society. I get that argument from an income inequality perspective. But to this girl, who paid for her wedding herself and who works her arse off most days to keep this little endeavor going, it seemed bonkers that somehow the government deemed the two of us as married to be entitled to less than the two of us as individuals. There’s a built in assumption justifying that system there that one of us shouldn’t be working (and traditionally, that one is the woman) once they are married. As a feminist, I am appalled that somehow my economic value (or my spouse’s) is deemed to be less worthy because we said “I do.”

      • Frances

        This is very well written. Thanks for your perspective Kats

      • Class of 1980

        “But to this girl, who paid for her wedding herself and who works her
        arse off most days to keep this little endeavor going, it seemed bonkers
        that somehow the government deemed the two of us as married to be
        entitled to less than the two of us as individuals.

        There’s a built in
        assumption justifying that system there that one of us shouldn’t be
        working (and traditionally, that one is the woman) once they are
        married. As a feminist, I am appalled that somehow my economic value (or
        my spouse’s) is deemed to be less worthy because we said “I do.”

        BRAVO! And it should be a feminist issue.

    • River

      Rachel, I liked this response so much that I signed in to upvote it. Thank you for gracefully expressing the (somewhat rage-filled) discomfort I felt while reading this.

    • OP

      Hi Rachel, OP here. Thanks so much for your judgment, it was super helpful. I thought I would clarify some things.

      1) The whole point of the marriage penalty is that I do not feel that I deserve to pay MORE than other couples whose total income is the SAME AS MINE. There was an important snippet of my letter cut out: imagine you have two couples, and both couple makes $100K. If one couple makes $50k+$50K, and the other makes $80K+$20K, then the first couple will pay more than the second. In fact, as an unmarried couple, we still pay more than many married people who earn the same household income as us or more. This is not exclusively the province of the rich, either, which leads me to:

      2) I am not even remotely rich. We’re academics, and we live in an expensive city. We don’t own a car and we live in a 600 square foot apartment that we would no longer be able to afford if we got married. While we do have class privilege– we can afford to eat out about once a week, we go to plays twice a year– the idea that people are reacting to our domestic partnership because of our Richie Rich lifestyle is beyond laughable.

      3) I actually feel good about paying my taxes, contrary to what you’ve assumed. What I don’t feel good about is that the marriage penalty arose as a side effect of a marriage bonus… for men, at a time when the most their wives could hope for was poorly paid, part-time work. It only turns into a penalty (at the exact same total income level) if you have a two-career couple. And you know what? Even if we did make the $200k+ that everyone here seems to imagine, I still think that making women pay more in taxes for pursuing a career after marriage is pretty crappy. I think that your fair share should be based on how much you make, not because of a ratio of who made what.

      I realize that the (truncated) version of my letter must have conveyed something different, because everyone seems to assume that we are significantly better off (someone downthread speculated that we must make at least $500k?!?! ) than we actually are, voted for Mitt Romney, are sneaky tax dodgers, etc. Given how far any of this is from our reality, I’m not sure why I found them all so hurtful, but I did. So congratulations, Rachel and other snide commenters: you made me cry. Given the tone of your comments, that seems to be what you were after, so congrats.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        I don’t mean to be argumentative, but I’m looking at 1040s, and I don’t see how the 80/20 v. 50/50 thing is an issue, for married couples filing jointly. Yes, 80/20 v. 50/50 couples are going to have to work out their withholdings differently. But married couples filing jointly fill out 1 tax return, which has only 1 set of lines stating the couple’s combined income and available deductions. Both the 80/20 and the 50/50 couple end up at the same line on the same tax table. All things being equal, they’re going to pay the same amount of taxes – either when they file or through their withholdings.

        It must have to do with married filing separately from a separate property state, which is the opposite of the situations I’m familiar with. Except, now I look at the actual tax tables, and the math still isn’t working. Tax due, based on AGI:
        $100,000, married filing jointly = $16,351
        $50,000×2, married filing separately or single = 2x $8,435
        $80,000+$20,000, married filing separately = $16,140+$2,553
        $80,000+$20,000, singles = $15,935+$2,558

        I understand you weren’t saying your household income is $100K. I just think you may have used a withholdings calculator instead of a total tax calculator, or something.

  • Hils

    This is really not the issue of this question, but before my husband quit to stay home with our son, the penalty applied to us — and we avoided it easily by filing separately on the same return even though we’re married. I think that should be an option in this case. We definitely saved a couple thousand doing it that way.

    • Ann

      Yep. The hubby and I always calculate taxes twice (easy with TurboTax). Once together, once apart. Last year, filing together made sense since I made almost 2x what he did. This year? It’ll be more like 1.5 times AND that 1.5 times is… 1.5 times not very much. So we may have a benefit or a penalty, but I doubt it would be more than a hundred bucks or so.

      • Mezza

        THIS. I was excited to file jointly for the first time this year, but I ran the calculations both ways and it made more sense to file separately. Part of this is because I have income-based loan payments that would skyrocket based on our joint income, but if we file separately, they are only based on my income. We still didn’t make out like bandits on our tax returns, but the lower loan payments were worth it.

    • leafygreen

      The first 74,425 of your money ends up in the same brackets whether you’re single or married filing separately, but beyond that the brackets have lower cutoffs. If they’re making *significantly more* than 74,425 each, they could well be looking at thousands more in taxes even filing separately.

      That said, personally, in that situation I would probably not make the choice to not marry (especially considering all the benefits Elisabeth mentioned — the guy I’m marrying used to think that marriage was pointless, but the marriage equality movement won him over a bit on that front with all the horror stories about how you can get screwed as a non-legal spouse).

    • Mags

      One reason that it does not always make sense to file married filing separately is because of the possibility of contributing to an IRA. If you don’t have a tax plan at work (like me! and many other people who don’t make that much money), but you do make over $10,000 (like me! and I think you will all agree that this is almost no income) then you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA if you are married filing separately. Thus, marriage penalty with taxes (and if you make the same amount of money even if it’s not that much you’ll be paying some marriage penalty — we’re just scraping by with one child in our urban environment) or no tax-advantaged retirement saving.

      • Hils

        That’s a good point! I remember when I was researching this that retirement funds came up as a reason not to file separately. I actually found that you’re almost never encouraged to file that way. (The IRS sort of refuses to acknowledge the penalty, if I recall.) But it did make sense for our situation. It was also even more complicated once we had a kid, because of the question of who could claim his as a dependent. (I think it’s the person who earns more.)

      • Hmm, that’s interesting to know about the Roth IRA implications.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      It’s my understanding that filing separately won’t save you any money if you’re filing from a community property state. It can maybe be a way for the law-abiding spouse in an acrimonious relationship to make sure he/she files timely, but the IRS will make sure the taxes come out just as if they filed jointly, because legally all the income, etc., is joint.

  • Eh

    One of my ex’s was against marriage. He repeatedly told me that he was committed to me and he had no plans on going anywhere, so that should be enough. We were common-law at the time and his impression was that was legally as good as being married but I knew that it wasn’t. At the time I worked with seniors and disabled adults, and I heard tons of horror stories about battles over insurance money or not being able to make medical decisions for a partner. I wanted to get married to protect us if something was to happen. Anyways, that relationship ended and now I am married to my awesome husband. The institution of marriage is far from perfect but I feel better working in the system.

  • emilyg25

    We didn’t really realize what all legal marriage meant until we took APW’s advice to visit a lawyer to get wills drawn up. Turns out, we didn’t need wills because as a legally married couple, our state already automatically distributes our assets pretty much exactly how we would choose to. Crazy! In the US, marriage is so much more than an emotional commitment, which is why so many people are fighting for access to it.

    We got dinged by the marriage penalty this year. It wasn’t as bad as what the letter writer is facing, but it was unexpected and it hurt. But with privilege comes responsibility. We make a comfortable income and it makes sense that we should pay a significant share of it. I can’t imagine not getting married just because it would save us money.

  • Jules

    Great points here and from Elizabeth on the legality side of things, but I wanted to chime in on the two questions with which LW ended.

    Q1) SPEAK UP. When people utter micro-aggressions and snarky comments – especially about the legitimacy of something that’s none of their business – that hurts, and you would do best by pointing it out in a direct manner. Something like, “It really hurts that we’re making a public, lifelong commitment to each other, and I feel like you are dismissing that and not being supportive. Our decision is a personal one, and we’d like for you to be happy and excited for us.” Then, if they’re human, they should have an oh-shit moment of relative shame and know that every time they say something like that, they’re hurting you. And that’s not cool.

    It is TOUGH when friends don’t support your relationship for whatever reason. I don’t think anyone should really have to “defend” a decision to friends…approximately ever. I trust that they’re (generally) making the best choices for themselves and that they have more information about the situation than I do. But if the door’s open for safe, non-judgmental conversation, for discussion, I’m game.

    Q2) In this particular case, it seems like it all boils down to money and legal reasons and not an attempt to seek a different type of commitment? You’re having a WEDDING, he is your FIANCE, but you’re not calling it “marriage”…but you are committing to each other for life in front of everybody and celebrating that. I’m not suggesting you should hide your decision or be ashamed, but you have two options: 1) roll with the “getting married” phraseology, or 2) understand you may have to do a lot more of confronting people/explaining initially, but once it’s all done at least everyone knows the truth.

    Last point: I’m not sure how your state treats common law marriage, but is it possible that you could accidentally get married? In Texas – be really careful about ever “agreeing that you are married”, being “husband and wife”, and publicly telling people you’re married (Q2 has this concern because if you TELL people that’s what you’re doing….then you may have grounds for common-law if one of you ever filed for recognition). That could lead to some public confusion in the instance of death, divorce, kids, whatever.

    • Sarah E

      Agree whole-heartedly on your first point there. Even if all you can manage is “Ouch! That hurt.” If you’re speaking sincerely, and show that you’re a vulnerable human being like everyone else, they’ll get the gist that they’re being jerks.

  • anonpsu

    A ton of good points in this I really enjoyed it. I think not getting married now is a little short-sighted. As Elisabeth pointed out, it may make financial sense now but it might not make financial sense 2 years from one if one of you gets laid off. And the whole point about how much money are you *really* saving by having to draw up all of those extra documents. But I think it’s really crappy that your friends aren’t being supportive and frankly I would have trouble not firing back rudely if someone insinuated my commitment wasn’t “real”.

    Also…I agree that you are kind of using DP as a tax loophole. Like plenty of people who make more money have to make more taxes. I feel like it’s a bit on par with people who don’t get married so that they can continue receiving government assistance even though they have 2 working adults living in the household, but one qualifies as an unmarried woman with dependents (not trying to start a political battle here). It’s working the system, so that may be what your friends are a little annoyed at as well.

  • Sharon M.

    I think that the only difference other than the federal tax code, is that some states may not recognize your domestic partnership as having the same rights as marriage – which would only be a possible problem if something happened to one of you while you are travelling.

    • anonpsu

      Or if they moved. So they are doing this assuming they will always stay in that state.

    • nf

      It’s not even only other states, at least in my state domestic partnerships granted by a city mean nothing outside of that city (and in my city they mean nothing practical unless you’re a city employee.

  • K

    So, I just want to throw this out there, since it’s yet another benefit of legal marriage (and civil unions, I think) that does not apply to Domestic Partnerships…. if you want your partner to be on your health insurance, under a DP (assuming it’s even permitted by your company), you would pay POST-TAX benefits. As in, the government recognizes the amount your company pays toward health insurance as income AND you have to pay for the insurance with post-tax money (vs pre-tax for married partners).

  • Katy

    It’s a little crazy where these issues pop up too. I went to the oral surgeon last year and asked if my boyfriend could come into the exam room with me for the initial consultation because I have extreme dental anxiety and wasn’t sure if I would be able to pay close enough attention to the doctor. Well, apparently the doctor had issues with this before and for legal reasons wouldn’t allow him in the room because he was not my husband.

    I was pissed (along with being terrified), but I made it through the consultation without crying. The doctor ended up giving me lots of anti-anxiety pills before my procedure so I was completely out of it on the day-of. He must have realized he did not want me aware of what was going on in my mouth…

    But. Other than it being an opportunity for me to push against my own fear and anxiety, it was another example of a situation where being married is a benefit. It was actually in between the consultation and the procedure that we got engaged, and I think that experience was one of the things that pushed us towards getting engaged and married sooner rather than later.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      I’ll have a full comment on this, but I do believe that many of the “legal benefits of legal marriage” people think of are actually illusory. For example, it’s my understanding that the patient is entitled to have another adult of her choosing present for a medical procedure or consultation, unless it would be unsafe or unworkable (eg, too small an exam room). That your dentist wasn’t up on patient rights and privacy laws isn’t a fault of the marriage law, it’s just the fault of your dentist.

  • Mags

    I don’t understand why there aren’t more comments about changing the system so that there isn’t a marriage penalty. Doesn’t the very idea of being economically penalized because of your commitment to someone sound ridiculous? I understand that sometimes the marriage penalty turns into a marriage benefit, but as a feminist I don’t like the idea that this is a penalty whenever both partners are earning similar incomes. So basically I have a benefit if I stop working (which partner in a heterosexual relationship typically stops working??), but will pay a greater percentage if I work at a similar level (and earn at a similar level) as my spouse. This sounds so wrong and so anti-feminist. Instead of complaining about people who take advantage of tax loopholes (as a number of commenters are), why aren’t we trying to close these loopholes? At a time when so many unmarried couples live together and share incomes just as married couples do, why aren’t we more upset that just the act of getting married will cause someone to pay thousands of extra taxes annually! Instead commenters are saying they don’t like the OP taking advantage of tax loopholes! We should be working to change the tax code so this isn’t an issue.

    • Lauren from NH

      I think that is because many commenters believe that the tax code is somewhat just. That if you are making more that a certain amount and being married you share the cost you residence and other benefits, that you can afford to support the system more than couples who are less well off. I would say there is more of an issue with the language calling it a penalty than the code itself. You aren’t being penalized, you are being taxed proportionately to your income and costs/benefits. That’s getting into politics but I am not really sure how to avoid politics on this topic.

      • Mags

        This may have made sense when couples never lived together except when they were married, but that is completely not the case now. Today many, many couples live together and share the costs of residence just like married couples, but aren’t receiving this “proportional taxation” (or however you want to call it). That makes it a penalty associated with marriage or an extra bonus relating to living together-out-of-wedlock. It’s not a matter of language it’s a matter of the tax code having a real loophole in it. And since this penalty/extra bonus disappears when one partner (which is hugely disproportionately the woman) stops working or earns much less than the other partner, it is an antiquated, anti-feminist tax code.

        • Lauren from NH

          I see how you are lining this up with traditional gender roles, but I think I am reviewing the same information and coming to a different conclusion about the why. To me it is as simple as, you as a couple make less money when one stops working, or makes less, therefore you are taxed less.
          And on the issue of cohabitating partners, I agree with Lollygagger9 that while perhaps this should be improved, these partners do not enjoy the same legal benefits and protections as married couples. Without those protections, I think it fair that their finances be considered seperate by the government, therefore they are taxed as individuals.

      • Lottie

        This. I just filled out an apartment rental application: $x for me but just $x+10 for a married couple (versus $2x for an unmarked couple or pair of roommates). There are plenty of financial penalties for being single (housing, vacation single supplements, etc) and single or coupled but not married (health insurance options). Considering household income as an entity (say $50k) rather than individually ($25k + $25k) reflects that. I find the consequence of incentivizing an non-working or under-employed person (most frequently women) problematic but shared assets are shared assets and there are plenty of advantages elsewhere that balance it out.

    • Not Sarah

      Oh my gosh THIS. The comments are making me really upset. The LW asked for advice on how to respond to her friends’ upsetting comments and then Elisabeth went and told the LW about all the benefits of legal marriage? And same with the commenters and how this is a tax evasion scheme and not a real marriage? Not cool, ladies.

      I am so against the marriage tax penalty because to me, it really suggests that you shouldn’t have both people in the couple working full-time at high paying jobs. I am ALL for paying more taxes, but I am not for taxing high-income couples more than high-income singles. Couples can just live together and then save money on taxes. I also hate a tax code that penalizes high-income women for working – that is anti-feminist.

      My partner and I agree that we would both rather donate our estates to charity than to each other since the other person doesn’t need our estates. We would pay at least $5,000 per year in extra income taxes and have no plans to have children. I very much foresee us living together for years and having a wedding ceremony some day, but only getting legally married later if and when it would help us. If we move back to Canada, however, then I would be all for getting married because there, everyone is taxed on their individual income and not the household income.

      • Lollygagger9

        I would disagree here. If my income went up because I started making twice what I make now, I would expect my taxes to go up. If It goes up the same amount because I am married but my taxes didn’t go up? I think THAT would be the tax code saying I’m more valuable as a married woman than not. I think the OTHER federal marriage benefits might be implying that, but not the tax code. It’s household income. I realize your views differ, and I appreciate reading them.

        • S

          I’m Australian so things are probably different for us here, and the part in all of this I don’t understand is – HOW is your incoming coming up because you’re married? If I make a lot of money I should be taxed more money than if I earned less, no question. And IF marriage meant that I had more money, then yes, again, I should be taxed more money. But can somebody explain how a marriage license is giving anyone more money than if they just kept living with their partner?

          • Lauren from NH

            Sooo. It sounds like Austrailia only taxes individuals, where as in the US once you get married you file your taxes jointly as a household. Here is the link Elizabeth included with a little chart.

          • S

            Oh, so you only become a household when you’re married, even if you’ve been living with someone for a zillion years? Weird! In Australia we call living with someone permanently, sharing finances etc being “de facto” and from what I can assume if we DID do joint taxes for a household/couple, a de facto couple would have to do it the same way as if they were married. I still don’t understand how our combined income would increase just because we had to file together, which is what I’m most confused about, but I don’t have the brain for all these tax facts/charts I guess.

          • Lollygagger9

            I think others answered this but in case I wasn’t been clear I am referring to my household income going up. If I’m a single household making X and it doubles, I should be taxed Y. If my household is now two people and that income is 2X because it now includes me and my spouse, I don’t think being married should mean we pay less in taxes. We should still pay that new Y figure.

        • Not Sarah

          If person A makes $X and person B makes $X and then they each pay $Y in taxes, that means that as single people, they make $2X and pay $2Y in taxes. I would expect them to then pay $2Y in taxes if person A and person B got married, just like they did as single people.

          • Lollygagger9

            I think the difference I see is that if x+x puts you in a higher income bracket then I think that it is fair to tax that higher income bracket at the higher rate. I think that as others have said, it isn’t a penalty of being married, it’s a ‘benefit’ of being unmarried but in the same household, which I haven’t figured out how to fairly and legally parse out.

          • NewHere

            The thing is – many married couples choose to keep their finances separate (the pros and cons of which are discussed at length in many other posts). So yes, x+x might put you in a higher bracket but if you were living with your partner before marriage and paying y in taxes, and then get married and have to pay y + z in taxes afterwards, it’s going to sting if nothing else changed financially. I’m not saying that z will necessarily be that much money (marginal tax rates and whatnot), but it does feel like a ‘penalty’ when the ONLY difference is that you got married.

          • Lottie

            If there were a flat tax rate, that would hold. It’s because tax rates aren’t flat or static that it changes. But, in this example, it’s not necessarily 2Y but it’s the same as the individual earning the greater income. That is, if $20k income = 1k in taxes and 30k income = 2k in taxes, that holds whether 1 person earns the 30k (2k taxes) or the combined income of 2 married people is 30k (2k taxes). With credits and deductions and whatnot, it’s never that simple, but that’s the basis.

    • Lollygagger9

      I think Lauren from NH summed it up pretty well – I don’t actually see it as a penalty or loophole. When my now husband and I were living together but not married we paid less in taxes but we were still one household sharing all of our bills and such. Frankly I do think that the tax system would in theory be more fair if all households sharing funds as married couples do were taxed the same, but then you don’t have the protections of marriage if life circumstances change and you break up. I’m not sure how to fix that part of things, but I don’t think the problem is the tax code.

    • Hils

      Even though we now benefit from it, I absolutely think the code should be fixed! It’s a gender-based anachronism!

    • emilyg25

      But … I don’t think I’m being economically penalized because I’m married. I think my husband and I pay more taxes because we make a good income. And that makes sense to me.

      • Fiona

        I think the idea of a marriage benefit was originally rooted in gender. The family benefits by being financially able to have the wife stay at home. However, (correct me if I’m wrong) the husband could be that person as well.
        Also, is it a marriage penalty, or really just a lack of marriage benefit?

        • Marcela

          He definitely can be, my husband’s the reason we get a marriage benefit, not a penalty!

  • Leanne

    As a gay couple, we got married in NY and are finally recognized in our home state of PA. This year, for the first time we were able to file taxes jointly thanks to overturning DOMA. We actually got more back than we had in previous years. We have also experienced other financial benefits related to our home and auto insurance. However, we’re still having to shell out thousands for my partner to adopt our baby, even though straight couples have “presumed parenthood” even when using donor sperm. You win some, you lose some. Can’t wait until they are all wins!

  • Anonymous

    I’m sorry, but if you are making enough money to have a $5,000 marriage penalty, you can afford to pay the darned taxes. Please.

  • anonymous

    “But when good friends make offhand comments like, “You’re not really getting married,” it hurts my feelings.”
    But, you’re not *really* getting married …. I’m sorry, but it sounds to me like you want it both ways. You want to be recognized as a married couple, but you don’t want all of the legal obligations (yes, that includes tax obligations) that come with marriage. To be clear, I’m not judging your decision to choose a domestic partnership over marriage. That’s a totally valid decision, and definitely one that you should celebrate with your friends and loved ones. But I think you should be prepared to embrace the fact that what you are choosing is a domestic partnership, not a marriage, and those are not the same thing (as anyone fighting for gay marriage will tell you).

    • Molly Kopuru

      I agree with you. I don’t think her friends should be expected to treat them like a married couple when they just…. Aren’t. My husband and I got married for the many legal benefits (even though we may get hit with higher taxes) and I can’t say I completely understand the letter writer’s decision, but if that is her decision I feel like she should be prepared to stand behind it. That means accepting that people won’t necessarily treat them like they’re married.

    • swarmofbees

      They are certainly not getting legally married under the laws of the united states. But, I would consider myself married if i got married in my church even without a state sanctioned wedding license. This is something my partner and I considered, for some of the reasons enumerated by the question writer, though we ultimately decided to go the full legal route. If I was married at City Hall it would certainly be a legal marriage, but it wouldn’t feel like I was really married, to me at this time. Other people would feel the opposite way, one day maybe I will feel that way. I think that reflects the fact that every marriage is unique to the couple and that marriage, as it exists today, is both a legal contract and an emotional bond, for lack of a better word. For me the legal bits are important, and in fact a main reason why I want to get legally married, but for me they are almost a separate decision from getting married. It sounds to me like the question writer feels like the ceremony in front of her community will bring her the sense of commitment that means marriage, even without a legal wedding, regardless of her reasons for not wanting to get legally married. Perhaps the legal and the emotional are so inextricably intertwined that you can’t have one without the other. But, I understand why someone would feel married even without the legal backing.

    • Fiona

      I am uncomfortable with all the implied privilege of the author’s decision, but I do agree that the commitment is something to be celebrated. I don’t necessarily think her friends should question her choice because it doesn’t affect them whether she and her partner choose marriage or a DP, however it sounds like it may be a potentially unwise choice for things that may happen down the road. I REALLY appreciate the discussion of the legal elements. I think I learned a lot!

    • Alyssa M

      I think the comment by jhs about the different definitions for marriage really really is relevant here! Because as many a married (but not legally cause they’re not allowed) gay couple fighting for marriage equality will tell you, you can totally be married even if the government doesn’t recognize it.

      • anon from above

        Ok. But if the government *does* recognize it (as it does in OP’s case), but you *choose* not to get legally married – are you married? I would argue that you are not. You may be deeply committed to one another, you may be life partners, you may be any number of things, but you have made a (totally rational and completly understandable) decision not to be married.

  • Lollygagger9

    I got married last year. My husband and I make similar amounts, but his payroll didn’t make the correct withholding change, and this April we owed $5,000 to the IRS. Hit our savings, but we dealt because we can (as we have more income). I agree with some others who suggest maybe it isn’t the writer’s friends reacting to the domestic partnership decisions (I cannot judge how people choose to express their love), but instead her politics. I don’t see that 5,000 dollars as money we lit on fire – I see it as more SNAP and WIC dollars available. I like paved roads, public transit and knowing the fire department will come if I call 911. I am not having kids but I am happy to pay property tax for better public schools. I hate the wars we have picked these past years but I protest politically. Kind, good people can disagree on this (I don’t hear ‘fiscal conservative’ and automatically think EVIL) and I suspect that might (might) be a little of what people are expressing, just in different ways.

  • AnotherAnon

    As a long time reader, this is the first time I have been really disappointed with the way APW has handled an issue. I have always appreciated in the past that the APW community as a whole abides to the idea that each person/couple has to make the decision that is right for them personally, even if it doesn’t make sense to the general public. This time, rather than answering her question, it seems as if everyone is very quick to tell her why her decision (that has already been made and doesn’t seem to be up for discussion) is a poor one. This particular thread really strikes me as more of a hurtful thing than a helpful one.

    • Sarah E

      Agreed. She didn’t ask for assistance with her decision about marriage. That was made, and firmly, between her and her partner. I said this in another comment, but a note to check her class privilege is A-okay. A discussion on the economics or politics of her decision (while enlightening or invigorating for the crowd) is not what this commenter asked in her letter.

    • S

      I have to say I agree. I found all the advice in this post really interesting and helpful, just not helpful for the original question-asker, who was asking for completely different help and insight. While I think it’s so important to fully understand all these concepts before committing to a domestic partnership vs a marriage and that it was 100% worth mentioning, I also think it’s important to respect other people’s decisions, and this felt a bit pro-marriage in a way I felt uncomfortable with. (And also, I felt a bit uncomfortable with the idea put forth that an annual $5,000 loss is basically dismissible. Maybe for some…but that is a LOT of money for plenty of couples!) Aside from feeling a bit disrespectful, the post barely addressed any of the question-asker’s concerns, which…is…the point? I don’t mean in any way shape or form to attack APW or Elisabeth here (and like I said I think all the issues raised in this post are really important and were worth bringing up in some capacity) but I was a bit disappointed as a reader here.

      • AnotherAnon

        You worded this much better than I did, but yes. All of this. I think there is great discussion happening here, I just don’t think this is the response she was looking for.

      • Anonymous

        But if you are making enough money to have a $5,000 marriage penalty, it IS dismissible. We’re talking $500,000 to $1 million in joint income here.

        • Not Sarah

          It’s actually much less than that. It can kick in at $200,000 in joint taxable income.

          • Lauren from NH

            My parents made that and afforded a second house and several boats. One less jetski didn’t hurt us one bit.

          • Anonymous

            Yes, the penalty kicks in at $200,000, but my understanding is that at that income it would be somewhere around $1,000. To get a penalty of $5,000, you would have to have a much higher income. Caveat, obviously this is complicated and i could be misunderstanding something.

            In any case, as someone who works hard to make less than $30,000 w/o benefits (in my thirties), I just can’t find sympathy for rich people whining about an amount of money that I could live on for two months. I just can’t.

          • leafygreen

            Plugging some numbers into some calculators (which obviously isn’t flawless, but it’s a start) it looks like it takes a joint income of about $350k (assuming two equal incomes) to get a penalty of around $5,000.

            So, not as low as $200,000, but not as high as $500,000 either.

          • Jen

            So rich people shouldn’t be worried about inequality? I read the letter as not whining that they are losing 5K, but whining about the inequality of the tax code.

            In my case, I’m a young professional who has the same income and same expenses before and after getting married. We had to pay a LOT more in tax this year just because we’re married.

            If you were at restaurant and there were difference prices for people with rings on their fingers, you’d probably have an issue with it.

          • Anonymous

            Yes, they should be concerned with inequality – and income inequality. Complaining about a $5,000 tax when you make nearly 8 times the MEDIAN (median! not average!) household income in the US just really rubs me the wrong way. Sorry, but that’s how I see it.

          • Two different moderators have now asked that we stop making assumptions about what the LW makes and can afford. from here on out, I’ll be deleting further comments in that vein.

          • Liz

            Two different moderators have now asked that we stop making assumptions about what the LW makes and can afford. from here on out, I’ll be deleting further comments in that vein.

          • Susu

            As we realized with Frances’s story above, this depends upon things like whether the letter writer has children, etc. Please don’t make assumptions.

            Also, it rubs me that you think we should incentivise people not working/inequlaity in marriages.

          • Emily

            The marriage penalty is not fun, but it is also not an intentional disincentive. If the tax code were altered to not penalize married couples with similar incomes, it would inevitably penalize married couples with disparate incomes. On a gut level, I just can’t understand letting a slightly higher tax bill get in the way of getting married. Marriage is already such an impractical, unreasonable, leap of faith. I am putting my heart on the line. Compared to that what difference does a tax bill make?

          • L

            I wouldn’t. That’s called communism and I think it would be swell. It’s also an interesting concept-idea for a restaurant.

          • R

            I think the amount of the marriage penalty could depend not only on the total combined income, but on the disparity between the two incomes, in which case the penalty would not always be the same for all couples with a combined income of $200,000. I’m not totally sure on this, so someone more knowledgeable please jump in.

          • jashshea

            Yup. Just ran a calculator on our general situation as it really is (nearly equal incomes) and with one of making significantly less. The “tax penalty” dropped by more than 1/2.


          • R

            My husband and I make $200,000 a year in combined income and our marriage penalty comes out to $7,000k+ based on the calculator we used to figure out how much extra we should withold (basically the information on the back of the W-4, and I think it is correct based on what married co-workers have told me they had to withold after getting married). Yes, $200,000 is a lot of income…but we live in an expensive city (DC) and we both have a lot of student loans, so our disposable income is not as high as one might suspect. The impact of the marriage penalty was noticeable (but it wouldn’t cause me not to get married – I knew what we were getting into).

          • Anonymous

            Just for the record, I also live in DC and make less than $30,000 a year. I really get frustrated when people tell me they “need” $100,000 to live here.

          • R

            Don’t “need” it, but it’s worth noting because money doesn’t go as far here as in some other cities. $200,000 in DC is not the same as $200,000 in St Louis, even if you could live in DC for much less. Income can’t be looked at in a vaccum.

          • AnonForThis

            Yes, I also live in a hugely expensive city on an average (or just below average if you take mine and fiance’s wages and divide them by 2). When you and your partner make >$70k between you in probably one of the most expensive cities in North America and you hear people go, ‘Yeah, but we’re not rich because our $200,000 join salary just doesn’t go that far here!’ it’s SUCH a privilege-y slap in the face to me.

            Original letter, and ensuing comments threads have got me pretty worked up this morning. This is the most emotionally loaded ‘Ask Team Practical’ (or perhaps any article) I’ve read on here, and I’ve been reading it all….

          • AnonForThis(again)

            Let me amend this comment… I didn’t see R’s original “My husband and I make $200,000 a year” comment and my response was NOT inteded to be directed at anyone in particular but rather more based around conversations I’ve had with people in my current city of residence… I really wasn’t trying to single out a specific commenter on here, and hopefully it didn’t appear that way.

            That being said, I do hope people are aware that in conversations with others making statements about how much you make and how “it just doesn’t go as far as you think” can be hugely upsetting or insulting to someone who’s making less than you.

            By that rationale, I TRY to NEVER mention things in conversation about how we make ‘$X a year’ and it’s a struggle to pay for ‘x, y, z’. There are still people trying to get buy on minimum wage in this city after all and that’s still way under what we pull in…

          • R

            The point was that just because your combined income is high, it doesn’t mean that $5000+ is an amount of money that can just be dismissed. The comment was mostly in response to someone that said that by the time your marriage penalty is $5000, it’s dismissible. It was not to say that our combined income isn’t high, it wasn’t to say that we can’t afford things because of the marriage penalty, nor was it to say that I think the tax code/marriage penalty is unfair. Just that I think it’s crazy to think of $5000 as throw away money that can just be dismissed.
            To your comment below, I didn’t mean to offend anyone, and I’m sorry that I was insensitive.

          • AnonForThis

            Phew. I’m okay you’re okay and hopefully no offense taken either way! :)

            Still, without trying to be dismissive of what is to the vast majority of Americans a pretty hefty chunk of change, I still don’t see that $5k is ‘throw away’ money in this situation. It’s taxes which contribute to public services.

          • R

            Yes, very true. I meant that it’s not “throw away” money to me — not that $5000 in taxes is throw away money. (does that make sense?)

        • NewHere

          I’m a high income earner and pay all the taxes due – but I budget obsessively still and $5000 extra in taxes just for being legally married is NOT OK with me.

        • Maddie Eisenhart

          I think the one part of this conversation that makes me really uncomfortable is trying to figure out how much the letter writer makes. I think it’s fine to talk in generalities about when a certain penalty kicks in, but I would rather not make assumptions about how much they make and what they can afford.

          • ElisabethJoanne

            I agree it might be impolite to dig into even an anonymous stranger’s finances, but it’s not making assumptions. Anyone with patience and a basic understanding of the Tax Code can work out the income numbers. I agree “how much they make” has nothing to do with “what they can afford.”

            Also, if the response is going to include “have you thought of x,y,z besides taxes?” I think double-checking even the tax issues is appropriate.

          • Liz

            I think you hit on it, yourself. There are tax-focused threads discussing legal limits which are a-ok, and then there are threads that have started into, “WELL SHE CAN AFFORD IT.” It’s that second kind that’s WAYYYY over the limits.

          • MTM

            But I do think that this is tied into the privilege that the letter writer experiences and expects. There is a certain expectation from the writer that she should get all the benefits of marriage, and that everyone else should recognize her DP as marriage, even though she is actively choosing to go with DP. When you have privilege in multiple areas (financial, ability to marry who you want, network of friends), and you make comments like “In fact, I would argue that it will be more real than many unions that have received the federal government stamp of approval.” people are going to call you out on your privilege (like what is happening here in the comment section.

        • OP

          OP here: I’m going to address this because I think it is an important misconception about the marriage penalty. While I’m not comfortable stating my actual income on a public internet forum, I will tell you that our combined income is a very small fraction of what you are assuming. The $5k figure we reached was based on calculating our actual taxes (including city and state). While I will not pretend that we are somehow poverty stricken or something, we are very solidly middle class, and the extra tax bill represented a *very* significant chunk of our income. I have no idea where you got the $500K figure from, but I can assure you that we are not anywhere remotely close to that well-off.

          • L

            As you are anonymous anyway, why aren’t you comfortable stating your income? It would certainly be a more rational discussion — albeit not the discussion you were necessarily looking to have — with that information at hand.

    • Claire

      Thank you for saying this so eloquently! I was feeling the same way- if the LW had chosen to do this, because she felt that it was unfair to have a “marriage” when some people could only have a domestic partnership, I feel like the support would have been much broader, and brought much more helpful advice. If people commented on some of the beautiful domestic partnerships
      featured on this site with “well, you’re not REALLY getting married” I
      assume people would react badly. Why is it okay here?

      To the LW, you’ve made the decision to get a domestic partnership, that’s YOUR decision. Own it. Don’t feel the need to defend it, or explain it, or explain why. I would personally not even mention it, your wedding is your wedding, no matter what form it comes in… isn’t that one of the tenets of this site?

      I would, however, recommend a financial planner. A relative does estate law, and
      encouraged us to use a financial planner, who may also offer helpful tax planning advice!

      • anonymous

        “If people commented on some of the beautiful domestic partnerships featured on this site with “well, you’re not REALLY getting married” I assume people would react badly. Why is it okay here?”
        I think the difference here is choice. If you live in a place where you and your partner cannot legally get married, then a domestic partnership may be the closest you can get. However, if you have the option either to get married or to enter into a domestic parthernship and you choose (for whatever reason) to enter into a domestic partnership, then it seems disingenous to expect everyone to acknowledge your relationship as a marriage. Afterall, marriage was an option for you, but you actively chose to go a different route.
        Again, to be clear, I don’t think a domestic partnership is in any way lesser than a marriage, and I honestly believe that communities should honor and celebrate different ways of structuring family relationships. So when people say “well you’re not really getting married” I think the most honest thing for this poster to do would be to say “Well, no, we considered marriage and decided that it wasn’t a good fit for us. But we feel that as domestic partners we will be able to love and support one another in the same way that a married couple would” (or something like that).

    • Dacia E.

      I agree – I wish different types of commitment were treated equally, and that individual decisions were treated as legitimate without judgment. I personally would love to not get married for my partnership to be recognized as just as legitimate and committed, but I haven’t found that this is the case in many places where it counts (particularly “official” places), and it’s something I wish would change.

      I don’t think an individual decision to make a different type of commitment in any way makes the struggle for marriage equality less creditable as a cause. Same-sex couples are fighting for the right to have marriage as an option – but even when it becomes available to everyone, some of them may not choose to make this choice for a multitude of reasons, and that should be ok too. And I don’t see why “financial concerns” should be excluded from those reasons – much of commitment/marriage is navigating practical issues, including finances.

    • Liz

      We often use ATP questions as the jumping off point for a larger more general discussion! This isn’t something specific to this question or Elisabeth- I just did the same thing not that long ago. ( If I had to guess, it happens more often than it doesn’t!

      Similarly, I don’t think addressing “have you thought about these other angles?” is the same as casting judgment on a choice.

      As the lady who usually answers the ATPs, I’m surprised at these sentiments!

      • Sarah E

        The larger discussion here is great, but seems less helpful for the question-asker. In the example you cited from a few weeks ago, the letter writer was stressed about taking a budget-friendly honeymoon, you reminded her why honeymoons can be really important, and the comment section thrived with cost-effective honeymoon options. The tone in this comment section rings differently to me today, and doesn’t respond as directly to Elisabeth’s discussion starters at the end of her writing.

        • Liz

          Are we talking about the post or the comment section, though? I’m going to defend “how APW (Elisabeth) has handled an issue,” but I certainly can’t defend each individual comment- all I can do there is make sure they maintain civility.

          • Sarah E

            In tone, I’m certainly talking about the comment section, and I don’t hold APW responsible for anybody else’s opinion (heaven knows the staff does a fantastic job moderating). In subject matter, Elisabeth’s in-depth review of domestic partnership Vs. federal marriage benefits is an awesome piece of writing. I think that her focus on that topic might be better saved for an alternate post. The discussion she generated is engaging and important, but the comments don’t serve the letter writer any more than to reiterate that she’s acting from some high class privilege, so maybe she should just take the penalty and be grateful she can.

            So the only thing I think APW might’ve done differently is host this discussion in a separate post than the response to the letter. My main disappointment is in people who are seeing the letter-writer’s decision as politically questionable, and therefore deserving of the negative attitudes in her loved ones. In the past, the commenting community here as always taken a look at individuals with a kinder eye, being understanding of the diversity of lifestyles represented. I’m a bit surprised, though not terribly, that commenters don’t seem to give her any benefit of the doubt. I don’t take any major issue at all with how APW as an organization or Elisabeth approached the situation, though I may have done it differently (easy to say in hindsight, of course). I continue to respect and appreciate how thoughtfully the staff handles their work.

          • Fiona

            S, it seems to me that Elizabeth handled the response appropriately because she was providing background on the issue, which when left alone, would be confusing to someone like me who doesn’t have much of a clue of what marriage vs. DP entails legally. Her response is in part for the author, but also for the thousands of other readers who are curious as well. I, for one, felt like I came away from the post with much more understanding of the issue.

    • Lollygagger9

      I think advice columns in particular often do this – people ask a question, and the responder addresses it but also often will address other underlying issues. Like a LW might ask how to handle not wanting to be around a relative, and offhandedly say it’s because of X. The responder will share ways to tactfully avoid the person, but then might also try to get at why X is even a problem for the LW. It is hard to do that without making some condescending assumptions about people, but perhaps this is an example of where the comments actually reflect in a way why the LW’s friends are reacting this way, and perhaps that will help out the LW? But I do agree it probably went in a different direction than the LW anticipated.

    • leafygreen

      The majority of the discussion to me reads more like…investigating the decision, rather than telling the LW that it’s a poor decision. It’s what I would do if one of my friends made a similar decision. It wouldn’t be out of judgment, but out of wanting to make sure they had thought it through all the way, and that it really was right for them. (And once we got through that part? Hell yes I would just be happy for them.)

    • Fiona

      I found this thread rather helpful to evaluate the system of marriage and what the benefits and fallbacks are. I think it’s a complex issue that has tones of gender and sexuality included, and it’s a valuable discussion to have. The letter-writer provided us with a platform to discuss it with her non-traditional choice. It’s beside the point whether or not we agree with her. I haven’t seen comments that say that she shouldn’t celebrate her commitment with her friends, and I think most would agree with me. The comments are really and truly evaluating the benefits and pitfalls.

  • Bee
  • nf

    I wonder if it would help to (at least with close friends), focus on talking about what the commitment you are making when you have your wedding means to you, rather than on why you’re not getting married legally. I feel like focusing on they why not makes it harder to understand it as a real commitment (because you’re focusing on the differences), whereas if you talk about the vows you will be saying etc. it might be easier for your friends to understand.

  • S

    I’ve asked this down-thread as a reply, but I’m really eager to have this explained to me: why do you have to pay more taxes as a married couple than a non-married couple with the exact same finances and living arrangements? I ~fully~ understand paying more taxes if you have more money, I’m just not sure I understand how/if marriage gives you more money – is that the argument at play here? If marriage meant I had more money, I would definitely be up for paying higher taxes. But if I go to work one week and earn $X a year, and my partner goes to his or her job and earns $Y a year, then combined we have $X+Y regardless of any rings or licenses, right? (Disclaimer: I’m Australian, so I’m not super well versed in American politics and tax laws etc, sorry!)

    • Anonymous

      it’s because you live together, so your living expenses are way lower. Less rent, less utilities, only one set of furniture, etc.

      • S

        Someone down-thread explained that you only file as a household once you’re married and that you don’t/can’t do that if you’re in a committed relationship and living with someone, which is where my main confusion came in. (In Australia we basically treat married and de facto couples the same in most regards when it comes to this sort of stuff, I’m fairly certain.) It would never have occurred to me that a de facto couple wouldn’t have to file together if a married couple had to.

      • Class of 1980

        Who says? Why would there be an assumption that expenses are lower when married? How many couples need to move to a larger space than they needed when single?

        Even in cases where living expenses become lower by living together, they are seldom “way lower”.

    • Sally

      I think you have just broken down the issue very well. I would agree with you that individuals should be taxed and not couples because you don’t earn any more money when you get married. But, in the US we tax households (assuming all households include married couples, which seems very old-fashioned) and so it assumes that you will have less living expenses if you are married. Given how much relationships and society has changed since the tax code was written, I think we need to update it to a more progressive version.

    • StevenPortland

      Traditionally before marriage, the two people lived separately and each had rent/mortgage, utilities, etc. By getting married there was a sharing of finances and a need for only one rent/mortgage, utilities, etc. So while as single people making about the same amount of money each would be taxed in the X-percentage bracket, the larger combined income bumps the couple up to the Y-percentage bracket. But remember, not all of the income is taxed as Y-percentage so it isn’t as unfair as it might seem. And also remember, all that tax money isn’t just thrown away. That’s the way for us to have interstates, and parks, and schools, and fire stations, etc.

      • BeeAssassin

        Also, (wealthy) married couples have lots of benefits upon the death of one of the married partners compared to non-married partners. There are many exemptions applied to estate taxes, retirement account inheritances, life insurance policies, etc. So I can sort of see why, from a theoretical perspective, there’s this concept of paying up front for some privileges conferred later.

    • Lottie

      It’s about tax bracket thresholds (b/c rated of taxation go up with wage (though not investment) income. So if $x+y moves a couple into a higher tax bracket than the rate if taxation on *only* the amount over the line gets taxed more. Say 20k and below is taxed at 5% and 21k-40k at 7%. If a couple’s joint income stays under 20k, they retain the 5% tax rate. If they hit 21k, then 20k is taxed at 5% and 1k at 7%, which is considered a ‘penalty’ because had their individual incomes been 10+11 or even 20+1, everything would be taxed at 5%.

      • Juliet

        Just to clarify, this explanation is the reason why your taxes may increase. Answers above about combined expenses are possible justifications as to why this policy is in place, but it really boils down to the idea that higher earners pay higher percentages of their income in taxes, and that the tax brackets don’t simply double those cut-off numbers for joint filers. The article linked to after the tax quote in the answer above has a handy reference chart that outlines the tax brackets and the tax rates for each, single vs. joint filing.

  • Emily

    “I know my wedding will be real. In fact, I would argue that it will be more real than many unions that have received the federal government stamp of approval.”
    Yes, by all means pass judgement on other peoples’ personal decisions whilst bemoaning your predicament.

    I don’t think it’s worthwhile to make this distinction about your wedding to anybody new. Do you typically discuss with your whole community the nuances of your tax filings? If you change your mind about the federal status, would you be announcing / celebrating that down the line? You’re making an unorthodox choice, you and your partner are happy with your decision, great. To those who already are in the loop, express your excitement about the upcoming celebration, and how much you appreciate their support.

    • Fiona

      I did wonder briefly if the letter-writer could just call it a marriage, legal folderol be damned. Is it necessary to discuss taxes with every wedding guest?

  • 1 – I don’t think that you have to tell anyone that you’re getting a domestic partnership until of “officially” married. It’s none of their business. You’re committing your lives to each other and having a celebration and that’s all they need to know. You’ve told people & they’ve been rude about it and absolutely you should call them out on it. You don’t need to defend anything.

    2 – Does anyone have info at what point this marriage penalty thing stops? One thing I’ve been looking forward to about married life is that my taxes will go down filing married & joint compared to filing single. Both my fiance and I are in the 25% tax bracket, and we’ll both pay less in taxes than we did as single folks, esp since we don’t have any additional deductions (no mortage, make too much for the student loan interest deduction). I just re-ran the numbers to make sure I wasn’t crazy, and I was right. Am I the only one who’s getting a tax benefit from getting married?

    • StevenPortland

      We got a huge tax benefit, but that’s mostly because one of us stays home with the kids.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      My understanding is the “marriage penalty” has to do with relative incomes. Obviously, if the household income is too low for any income taxes, there will not be a marriage penalty, but assuming you pay income taxes, anyone can see a “marriage penalty” when the spouses’ incomes are similar, though various circumstances can make it more or less likely you’ll be subject to the “marriage penalty.” (circumstances like each spouse’s employer’s retirement plan, or lack thereof; how much is earned income v. capital gains; whether your household is subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax)

      We got a huge tax benefit because my husband is unemployed. Before I got married, all my income was for 1 tax payer. After marriage, my income was the same, but it was apportioned between 2 taxpayers. (I’m paraphrasing how the Tax Code actually works.) There were also 2 people who could get IRA deductions; 2 people to get student loan interest deductions, etc.

    • Marcela

      Our return was ginormous this year after getting married because my husband only worked part of the year before heading into vet school. All of a sudden my income was divided by two and we got a tax benefit.

  • Alison O

    A few things come to mind-

    – I am not surprised that people do not see your marriage as a real marriage because it isn’t. It might be a strong emotional/loving/logistical bond, but marriage is a specific legal arrangement, one that involves some sacrifices (and many benefits) and is much harder to dissolve than a domestic partnership–by virtue of that it means a lot more to most people I think. If I could enter into a domestic partnership with my partner so that I could get free health insurance through his job, I would do it in a heartbeat, but straight people can’t get dp’s where we live. Would I be so quick to get married? Not at all. It’s just a much bigger deal.

    – At the same time, it is sad that you are not receiving the support you want from your community at this time in your life. It sounds like there are two facets to how you might approach this moving forward, the first being not to explain to people the legal arrangement behind your union, but just invite people to your ‘wedding’. Some people might find it dishonest in your case as straight people with the option to be married (if they find out), but plenty of people celebrate relationships in the absence of legal marriage. It sounds like you’ve already told a lot of people you’re opting for a dp instead of marriage, so this advice might come a little late, but I’d say moving forward if you are sure about your decision, consider it as your personal business that you don’t need to share, and you won’t open yourself up to the criticism. There are plenty of reasons people will criticize one’s union and/or wedding celebration–from the person you chose to the flowers you chose. You need to feel secure in your own decisions regardless of others’ opinions–or if you don’t feel secure, maybe you should reconsider. For the people that are close to you who have hurt your feelings, I would let them know. Perhaps explain why you’re doing what you’re doing in more depth and let them know what kind of input and support you want. If they can’t respect your wishes (for how they relate to you, not that they have to agree with your decision), it sounds like there are larger cracks in those relationships. Good luck to you.

  • jhs

    This post does such a good job of pointing out how our language fails us, and “marriage” means two things in society. One “marriage” is the loving, trusting commitment of two people to each other, which many have said is “real” as soon as the couple does this in front of their family/community/church/etc., regardless of signing a government contract. The other “marriage” is the legally binding contract, which has nothing to do with love. We have the same word for both, and that’s truly unfortunate.

    So this couple will only be able to claim one of these definitions, and that fact comes with its own set of issues. Yes, fuck anyone who tries to define your emotional relationship for you, but defining a legal relationship is a lot more black and white. You will be married emotionally, but you will not be married legally, and some people put more value in one definition over the other, and while both are “real” they are real in very different ways.

    My thought is that the legal marriage should always serve the emotional marriage, and if your emotional marriage doesn’t benefit (overall, after weighing pros and cons) from the legal part, don’t do it.

    (But also yes recognize that you’re in a very lucky place to even get to make this choice)

    • Alyssa M

      Nothing productive to add here, but I just have to say that I love you’re comment. It very clearly parses out the issue here.

    • Maddie Eisenhart

      Well said.

    • Juliet

      You wonderfully hit on the same point here that I did above. Well put.

    • DH

      I have to disagree. I think the failure of language here is willful. I think marriage has a specific meaning that is the latter of the two you suggest. Personally, I can only say that I would never ever apply the term marriage to any relationship that was not legally or religiously solemnized. I think its just incorrect to suggest that marriage has anything to do with how the couple themselves define their relationship. Marriage is a legal and cultural construct applied by society onto the couple from the outside. It has both benefits and burdens that are externally imposed, and I think its especially disingenous of the original letter writer to try to coerce full recognition of her relationship as a “marriage” from people after she has explicitly told them that she has put a specific dollar figure on that particular form of recognition and deliberately decided that it’s not worth the price. If she’s deciding not to get married, then she should stand by that decision rather than trying to have it both ways.

      • kris

        This is excellent.

      • Class of 1980

        But where are the limits to your reasoning? Is there a sliding scale of benefits and burdens that would trump the governments definition of marriage for you?

        Evidently, you don’t find the OP’s dollar amount a compelling enough reason to avoid legal marriage. If the government instead took 20% more of the married couples income than if they were single, would that make a difference? What about 30% or 50%?

        I suspect that many people would put a specific dollar figure on this form of recognition if the amount got too high for them.

      • jhs

        You describe marriage as “legally or religiously solemnized,” but those are two very different things, and I believe the two distinctions I speak of above (including non-religiously but otherwise solemnized in a community). Many devout people do not consider a union “real” unless it is proclaimed before god. And on the flip side, I’m sure you can have whatever ceremony you like, but unless you sign a contract you’re not married according to the government. I’m not trying to say that anyone can run around proclaiming they’re married, but that the legal construct and the cultural construct are different.

        • Class of 1980


          This is why people in some countries (France) have separate religious and civil ceremonies. The OP evidently feels their ceremony, which may be fulfilling their religious requirements, is enough of a show of committment.

          In addition, legal marriage has been a changable situation throughout history. Governments have not only conferred legal rights and benefits; they have also denied them on illogical or prejudiced grounds.

          I don’t feel any special reverence for how a government defines marriage, because governments can be benign or oppressive. Government isn’t an angel that we should bow down to no matter what. They are supposed to work for us.

          • ElisabethJoanne

            Whenever the French, Manacan, Mexican, Austrian, Peruvian, etc., distinction between religious and civil marriage is raised, I like to point out: We can do that in the USA, simply by religious institutions changing their rules. No new laws necessary. I bring it up with my clergy periodically. I think it would better express what marriage means religiously to not have the 2 ceremonies combined.

  • Juliet

    I think the tension in this comments discussion highlights something that I’ve always found odd about marriage: the idea that a was historically a ceremonial covenant about a couple’s status within a religious community is now an institution regulated by the state that grants certain rights and privileges/penalties within our governmental structure.

    I think a lot of the strong feelings about this are coming from the truth that those those communal, emotional components of marriage are, in our modern society, so very tied to the practical components that come along with a legal marriage. An interesting aspect of the same sex marriage movements is that it has, if anything, tied these two components of marriage even closer together. One of many compelling arguments for marriage equality is that to be true equal members of society, same sex couples’ marriages must tick both the emotional and practical boxes, so to speak.

    While this is a truly valid argument and certainly a necessity in terms of equal protection, I don’t really think they need to be tied so closely together for anyone’s marriage to be seen as true or valid. I think it’s okay for any couple to check whichever box(es) they want, in whatever combination works the best for them. Elizabeth’s response to the question, while well thought out, persuasive, and completely valid, reminds me a lot of the story my future MIL keeps telling me to persuade me to change my last name when I marry her son. It’s about a second cousin and her husband who couldn’t get a loan for car because she didn’t change her last name and the dealership didn’t believe they were married. While a true and valid anecdote, her point isn’t REALLY about the practical reasons to change my last name, the point of the story is really to get me to adopt an value of marriage she sees as important that I simply don’t happen to share.

    Some couples run to the courthouse and become legally married 2 years before they were planning to due to a sudden illness for insurance purposes. THAT’S A MARRIAGE.

    Some couples throw a wonderful party with a ceremonial commitment in front of their friends and family pledging themselves to each other for life, but never file paperwork to have their commitment recognized by the government. THAT’S A MARRIAGE.

    • Sarah E


    • Alyssa M

      Went looking for your comment after I read what you said on jhs’s comment… and YESYESYES. Two of my acquaintances who had a ceremony but were not legally allowed to marry (or even get a DP, there is NOTHING allowed in AZ) are still married, and no one but the gov’t denies it. My friend’s mother who married for entirely practical reasons in what amounted to a business contract… is still married,and no one denies it.

  • Heather

    Wow, thank you for this! Tax changes after marriage are one of the things that I’ve intended to investigate, but haven’t gotten around to. I really appreciate all of the resources!

  • ElisabethJoanne

    Legal issues the LW might not have thought of: I believe couples living outside of community property states can avoid the marriage penalty by filing separately. Also, what if you’re involved in a lawsuit? Does spousal privilege extend to RDPs? Being a criminal defendant or a witness is something you have very little control over.

    I’ll also just throw out that with pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements, we never know the legal contract between even legally married spouses. There may be 3 kinds of marriage: the emotional/spiritual/religious commitment, the private legal commitment, and the public legalities.

    Related to that, what I’d tell the LW, as someone who’s been married 18 months and really didn’t like it the first 12 is: The laws of marriage have been normative for me, not just descriptive. That is, because the law requires I take care of my disabled spouse, I’m happier to do it, even though both our relationship and the law (through divorce) would have given me an out. Because the law of our state requires me to share all my income, again, I do that, even though my husband would have happily agreed to a pre-nup or post-nup making other arrangements. Because the law protects all my private communications with my husband, I’m much more open with him. I don’t doubt that there are people who can be committed without the legal supports, but I’m not one of them.

    • Jess

      I’d just like to take a moment and thank you for sharing the way the legal supports of marriage affect the more emotional side of commitment for you. I have always wondered about how/if that happens. It’s a really interesting insight that I haven’t heard discussed frequently.

    • emilyg25

      Yes, thank you. I could not find a way to explain why legal marriage is a really big deal to me, personally. But you hit the nail on the head.

  • elcee

    Apologies if this was already address/discussed… I’m in a straight domestic partnership, and we’re considering getting married. We make roughly the same amount and we are each well under that 90k marker that a few others have referenced. My question is: is there actually a financial difference between selecting “married filing jointly” or “married filing separately?” We’re all discussing the tax implications of suddenly and legally combining your finances– but what if you still file separately? Does the marriage bonus/tax still apply? Or are your taxes more or less what they were when you were legally single?

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Just from doing my own taxes and reading the fine print of the 1040 instruction booklet, it depends on whether you’re filing from a community property state. If you’re filing from a community property state, you can still file separately, but it won’t change how much the couple pays in taxes. If you’re filing from a separate property state, you may be available to avoid the marriage penalty by filing separately.

      • elcee

        Thank you!

    • BeeAssassin

      Disclaimer before answer (you should consult a tax professional). Answer: Married filing separately has a lot of penalties attached. A lot of threshholds for certain credits/benefits are much lower or non existent. There may be complications to married filing separately for your state taxes if you live in a community property state. There are some instances where it does make sense. My impression is that the federal government is trying to heavily discourage it in the way they’ve structured the code.

    • Vanessa

      Just FYI – some states that allow opposite-sex DP don’t allow a person to be in a marriage AND in a DP – even if the marriage and DP are with the exact same 2 people. This means that if you live in one of these places you have to go through the process of dissolving the DP (similar to divorce) before you can get a marriage license.

  • BeeAssassin

    As a former accountant, bless you for this post and the thoughtful and factual way you’ve dealt with it!

  • Dian Xiao

    I’m glad the OP has done her research on the matter. People throw around the word tax benefits as one of the perks of marriage and less people are aware that there are marriage penalties. There are other implications such as even if you file separately if one spouse itemizes the other has to do as well.

    What you’ve said makes perfect sense to me: “it doesn’t affect our commitment, emotions, or day-to-day lives”. You’ve weighed the marginal emotional and spiritual utility and have decided that it is less than the utility you would get in having a couple thousand dollars more a year. I think it’s also OK to be selfish some of the time and not think about the greater good.

    In response to people’s negative response and calling your marriage as not real. On a technical term, you really aren’t married. If people said that to me, I would respond snarkily, yes that’s correct and I’m perfectly happy with it! I think a domestic partnership is great choice and something to be proud of….completely worthy of celebration! People might be correct on a technicality but their comments are filled with judgement. Don’t let that attitude diminish what you’ve decided!

  • Sonny

    Maybe someone who is more knowledgeable about tax code can enlighten me… couldn’t the letter writer and parner file their taxes separately? I thought the “Married Filing Separately” option was designed for this very scenario.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      There are other posts on this, but, in short:
      1. Not all deductions, etc., that are available to singles and “married filing jointly” are available to “married filing separately.”
      2. If you’re filing from a community property state, you both lose some deductions and can’t pay less in total taxes.

      “Married filing separately” appears to mostly be for acrimonious couples without children where one spouse doesn’t trust the other to file on time.

      • Sonny

        Interesting, I didn’t realize it was so different from filing as single. I guess this prevents people from paying less on the years where they qualify for a “marriage discount” without also paying more on the years they don’t.

  • AnonymousThisTime

    To the original letter-writer: please know that you are not alone in considering this option.

    Nearly 20% of the federal budget goes to spending on defense. My partner and I don’t want to pay higher taxes because we strongly oppose US military actions overseas, and we oppose the support our government gives the military-industrial complex. Of course taxes are divided up amongst many federal programs (and defense spending is only one of those areas), which is why we make it a priority to donate time and money to provide support for our community in a way that doesn’t contribute to violence against people in other parts of the world.

    I’m usually impressed by APW readers’ respectful treatment of the wide range of opinions held by other readers but in this case I’m frustrated to see commenters assuming that the desire to not pay higher taxes is necessarily motivated by selfishness and greed.

  • Amy March

    I don’t get it. You don’t want to get married, fine. Then you’re not really getting married. You don’t get to compel everyone to play along with your game of make believe. You could get married, you’re not, so you won’t be.

  • vegankitchendiaries

    Completely ignoring the issues of privilege, equality, feminsm, Mitt Romney, and everything else…. here’s what I think:

    If you feel like you *are* “really getting married” than that’s what you can tell people and it’s not a lie.

    I’m also one half of a straight couple, engaged to be married. When I’ve told people things like “We’re engaged!” or “We’re getting married!” not one person has followed up with “Oh lovely, and will it be legally recognized by the federal government?”

    If you believe what your wedding will be just as valid and as a legal wedding then I don’t see where the problem comes in. Nobody is going to ask you, especially since you’re straight, how LEGAL it’s going to be. (And, of course it goes with out saying, you should never ask anyone this ever.) Your friends seeing your wedding as somehow different it might just be because you’re telling them specifically we’re getting domestic partner-married, you know? It’s not “passing” (or lying, or omitting the truth) if you feel like your union is for the best and most valid reasons reasons…. which it sounds like you do!

  • Kayjayoh

    I don’t have any strong opinions on the LW’s marriage vs. non-marriage, her reasons for either, or the tax code. But I am sad to see how many comments are basically just people calling out the LW in snotty ways. Poorly played, APW commentariat. Poorly played.