The term “it’s cheaper to keep her (or him)” has been thrown around to describe the effects of the U.S. marriage penalty. The penalty is the increased tax placed upon married couples compared to the lesser tax that would have been due if they were able to file as unmarried.

A person’s filing status is based on his or her marital status as of December 31st. Therefore, if you were single for most of the year and got married on December 31 then you would be eligible to file as married for the entire year.

There are states who will deem a couple as married, even though they have not made official wedding vows. This arrangement, known as a common law marriage, will generally come about when a couple lives together for a long enough period of time, are in their right mind and hold themselves out to the public as married.

It is not uncommon for someone to marry only to learn that his or her spouse has significant student loan debt, delinquent taxes or unpaid child support. This could result in the couple’s refund to be withheld when they file a joint tax return. In these cases it is possible for the spouse who did not have these debts to recoup some or all of the expected refund, provided that the debts were incurred before the couple was married.

In other instances a taxpayer may be released from a tax liability when:

  • His or her spouse, or former spouse, did not properly report all income on a joint tax return
  • There is a separation of liability and the spouse refuses to pay the tax due
  • The couple is separated and tax owed on a joint return is due to one spouse’s income

When two individuals file married filing jointly they are agreeing to be liable for the tax due with the return. However, there are some instances where one person may be able to reduce or even eliminate the amount owed. Whether you are about to get married, or are contemplating a divorce, it is best to consult with a tax professional to see if you can reduce your taxes, claim a refund or avoid any surprises.