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, otherwise known as an Employee's Withholding Certificate. With 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 whether you are "single or married filing separately," "married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er)," or "head of household." This article explains the implications of checking 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, calculates how much money will be withheld from your paycheck to cover taxes.
  • The form asks whether you are single or married and whether you have any dependents.
  • 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 five filing statuses taxpayers can choose from when they file their annual Form 1040 tax returns.

Single taxpayers generally have two options: File as a single filer or, if they are unmarried and supporting a qualifying person, as a head of household (HOH). People who lose their spouse in the tax year, meanwhile, can check the qualifying widow(er) box.

Married taxpayers, on the other hand, have a choice to make. They can opt 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 your standard deduction and the tax rates that will 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.

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

2021 and 2022 Standard Deductions and Tax Rates

The portion of income not subject to tax for single taxpayers and married individuals filing separately is $12,550 for the 2021 tax year and $12,950 for the 2022 tax year. Married individuals filing jointly get double that allowance, with a standard deduction of $25,100 in 2021 and $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.

Notably, 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 married individuals 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 withheld from your paycheck than is necessary, you should get it back later as a tax refund. Conversely, if you have too little withheld, you may face a big tax bill as well as an underpayment penalty.

To make sure the right amount is withheld, it is sometimes wise to file a new W-4 with your employer. A change in circumstance, such as switching from "single" to "married” or vice versa, impacts the amount of taxes you owe. If you let the IRS know immediately about these changes by filing a new W-4, you can avoid the headache of potentially paying too much or too little.

Taxpayers can use the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator to determine if they are over or underpaying on taxes. If so, they should adjust their withholding.

Can I Withhold as Single If I'm Married?

Yes, you can, although it may not be beneficial to do so. Though there are a few cases in which filing separately can make more sense financially—such as when one spouse is eligible for substantial itemizable deductions—joint returns usually yield greater tax breaks. To determine which option is best for you, run some calculations on the IRS worksheets and maybe talk to a tax professional.

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

No, filing single is not the same as filing head of household. The IRS specifies that the head of household must be unmarried, cover at least 50% or more of expenses in a household, and have a qualifying dependent. If you meet these criteria, you’re better off using head of household as your tax filing status because these individuals get preferential tax treatment.

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

In most cases, you will get a bigger refund or a lower tax bill if you file jointly with your spouse. However, there are a few situations in which filing separately can actually be more advantageous, including when one spouse has significant miscellaneous deductions or medical expenses.

The Bottom Line

Choosing the right filing status is crucial to avoiding underpaying or overpaying your taxes and potentially getting into hot water with the government. Make sure you carefully examine which status applies to you before checking the box and, if two of them apply, look into which one of them can save you more money.

Tax forms tend to be confusing, so if you find yourself stuck, don’t be embarrassed to ask your employer or a tax professional for help.

Article Sources

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  1. Internal Revenue Service. "About Form W-4, Employee's Withholding Certificate." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Form W-4: Employee's Withholding Certificate." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Form 1040." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501, Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2022." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2021." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Tips for Taxpayers Who Need to File a New W-4." Accessed Jan. 2, 2022.

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