Lots of life changes happen when you go from being single to being married, or when you go from being married to being single. One of those changes involves how your income is taxed. Single people are taxed differently than people who are married. Whatever your marital status, you need to have the correct amount of taxes withheld from your paycheck or you could have an unpleasant surprise come tax time.
Income Tax System
Every year around April 15 federal income tax returns are due to be filed. But just because you only file your taxes once per year, doesn't mean you pay your taxes only once per year. The U.S. federal income tax system is a pay-as-you-go system. You have to pay your taxes on your income as you earn it. That's where your Form W-4 comes in. Form W-4 tells your employer how much tax money to withhold from your paycheck, and that amount varies based on whether you check Single, Married or Married, but withhold at higher Single rate in Box 3 of Form W-4.
Tax brackets are different for single taxpayers and married taxpayers. For example, a married couple filing a joint return with a combined adjusted gross income of $40,000 would be in the 15 percent tax bracket for the 2012 tax year. A single taxpayer with an AGI of $40,000 is in the 25 percent tax bracket. If taxes were withheld from their paychecks at the same rate, the married taxpayer would likely have too much withheld, while the single taxpayer would have too little withheld.
When you fill out your W-4, Box 3 asks your marital status. It's not a trick question. Either you are married or you're not. If you are legally separate or your spouse is a non-resident alien, you are single for tax withholding purposes. Since there are plenty of life situations that affect your taxes, you have some options to help ensure the proper amount of taxes are withheld. For example, if you are married and expect to file separate returns, you'll probably need to have more money withheld from your paycheck. You can check the Married, but withhold at higher Single rate status in Box 3. If you have a lot of itemized deductions that will reduce your tax bill, you can reduce the amount withheld by increasing the number of your allowances on Line 5. If your employer isn't withholding enough, you can designate a specific additional amount to withhold each week on Line 6.
Check Your Withholding
The IRS recommends checking your W-4 anytime you have a life change, such as a change in marital status, or whenever there is a change in tax laws that might affect your tax rate. The idea is to match your actual tax liability to the total amount of your withholding as closely as possible. If you have too little withheld, you'll end up owning taxes at the end of the year, and you might even be subject to an under-withholding penalty. If you have too much withheld, you'll get a fat tax refund check, but you've given the government an interest-free loan of your money for that time. By withholding only what is due, you have access to your money sooner.
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