Single Withholding vs. Married Withholding: What’s the Difference?

In most cases, married couples who file taxes jointly have less withheld

When you start a new job, you'll usually be asked to fill out a W-4 Form, or Employee's Withholding Certificate. Using the information you supply, your employer will calculate how much money to withhold from your paychecks to cover your federal income taxes when they come due.

The first section of the W-4 asks you to check a box to indicate whether you are "Single or Married filing separately," "Married filing jointly or Qualifying widow(er)," or "Head of Household." This article explains what it means to check the boxes for single or married tax withholding.

Key Takeaways

  • IRS Form W-4, which you file with your employer when you start a job, is used to calculate how much money will be withheld from your paycheck to cover taxes.
  • The form asks whether you are single or married, as well as the number of your dependents, if any.
  • In general, married couples who file their taxes jointly will have less withheld from their paychecks than singles.

Single Withholding vs. Married Withholding

The three boxes on the W-4 Form (Single or Married filing separately, Married filing jointly or Qualifying widow(er), and Head of Household) correspond to the filing statuses that taxpayers have to choose from when they file their annual Form 1040 tax returns. (Form 1040 breaks them into five categories, giving "Single" and "Married filing separately," for example, their own checkboxes.)

To qualify as a head of household (HOH), the taxpayer must be unmarried and also supporting another person.

Married taxpayers can choose to file jointly on the same tax return, or separately on different tax returns, whichever is more advantageous in their situation. In most cases, filing a joint tax return will result in a lower tax bill.

Which box you check on your W-4 will determine the standard deduction and tax rates that are used to compute your withholding. All else being equal, married taxpayers who plan to file jointly will have less withheld on a percentage basis than singles or people with other statuses. That's because married taxpayers are likely to pay less tax when they file their returns for the year.

If your marital status changes, you'll want to submit a new W-4 form so your employer can adjust your tax withholding.

The standard deduction for single taxpayers and married individuals filing separately, for example, is $12,550 for the tax year 2021 (increasing to $12,950 in 2022), while marrieds filing jointly get twice that, or $25,100 (increasing to $25,900 in 2022). Similarly, singles are taxed at the lowest marginal tax rate of 10% on just their first $9,950 in income in 2021 (increasing to $10,275 in 2022), while married couples filing jointly are taxed at that rate on their first $19,900 in income (increasing to $20,550 in 2022). At higher marginal tax brackets, married taxpayers continue to benefit.

How Dependents Fit In

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) substantially redesigned the W-4 form, a change necessitated by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act's elimination of the personal exemption. So if you haven't filled out a W-4 in a few years, you will find it looks very different today.

In particular, the form no longer asks you to calculate (or guess at) your number of withholding allowances. Instead, taxpayers whose income is under $400,000 (for marrieds filing jointly) or $200,000 (for other filing statuses) are instructed to multiply their number of qualifying children under age 17 by $2,000 and any other dependents by $500 and enter those dollar figures on the form.

Using that information, plus your filing status, your employer will calculate how much to withhold from your pay.

Other Considerations

Bear in mind that if you have more money than necessary withheld from your paycheck you've lost the use of that money throughout the year, although you should get it back later as a tax refund. If you have too little withheld, you may face a big tax bill and also an underpayment penalty.

Alsom, note that you can always file a new W-4 with your employer to adjust your withholding. In particular, you will want to do that if your filing status changes from "single" to "married," or vice versa.

On My W-4, If I Am Single, Do I Fill Out 0 or 1?

If you fill out 0 on your W-4, you are indicating that the highest amount of taxes should be taken out of your paycheck. If you choose 1, fewer taxes will be withheld. When you file your taxes at the end of the year with the IRS, depending on if you choose 0 or 1, you will either receive a refund or owe taxes.

Is Filing Single the Same as Filing as Head of Household?

No, filing single is not the same as filing head of household. To file as head of household you need to meet certain qualifications as laid out by the IRS. The IRS specifies the head of household as a single individual that covers at least 50% or more of expenses in a household and has dependents.

Do I Get a Bigger Tax Refund If I File as Married Jointly?

Most often you will get a bigger refund or a lower tax bill if you file jointly with your spouse. However, this will vary depending on your tax situation. If you file separately, you will not be held responsible for your spouse's penalties or interest, so choosing which way to file depends on your own situation and what is most advantageous.

The Bottom Line

Depending on your marital status, filing taxes jointly with your spouse usually results in having to pay fewer taxes. Determining whether filing jointly or separately is more advantageous depends on a variety of factors, and must be noted on your W-4 that you provide to your employer, which determines how much of your income will be withheld as taxes.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "About Form W-4, Employee's Withholding Certificate." Accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501 (2020), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information." Accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Form W-4: Employee's Withholding Certificate." Accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2021." Accessed Nov. 21, 2021.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022." Accessed Nov. 21, 2021.