Talk about a party crasher: Uncle Sam is sure to be an uninvited guest at your wedding. You can count on your tax situation being high on the list of the things in your life that change when you tie the knot.
See Also: Tax Planning for Life's Major Events
The marriage penalty? Not so much. You've undoubtedly heard about the marriage-tax penalty, the quirk in the tax law that makes a married couple pay more income tax than they would have to if they remained single. Here's a little secret: Most married couples get a marriage bonus and pay less income tax than they would if each partner were single.
At issue is the graduated nature of the tax rates, which applies higher tax rates to higher levels of income. When you pile one income onto another on a joint return, it can push some of that income into a higher tax bracket.
In recent years, Congress has made important strides toward alleviating the marriage penalty. The top of the 10% and 15% brackets on joint returns are now precisely twice as high as the ceilings on single returns (they used to be less than double). As higher incomes fall into higher brackets, though, the breakpoints on a joint return aren't quite double the level on a single return. That could impose a marriage penalty, but it doesn't guarantee one. The more unequal the spouses' income, the more likely that combining them on a joint return will pull some of the higher-earner's income into a lower bracket. That's where much of the marriage tax bonus comes from — the fact that one spouse often makes much more income than the other. How you'll fare depends on how your income compares with your husband's or wife's.
If you do face a marriage penalty, you can't get around it by continuing to file as a single person. If you're legally married as of December 31, you're considered married for the full year and must file as either married filing jointly or married filing separately. The married filing separately status rarely works to lower the family tax bill. You can't, for example, game the system by having one spouse itemize and claim all the deductions while the other claims the standard deduction. Both husband and wife must either itemize or use the standard deduction. You can't mix and match.
Although some states now recognize same-sex marriages and allow gay couples to file joint state tax return, Uncle Sam still forbids joint returns. So, even if your state allows you to file a joint return, you must file as single or head of household at the federal level.