The filing status you claim on your Form W-4 helps your employer determine your federal income tax withholding. Whether you select the single or married rate influences how much of your paycheck is set aside for the Internal Revenue Service, and as a result affects both the size of your paycheck and your eventual tax refund or bill. The selection depends on your personal and financial situation, and each choice has its pros and cons.
Selecting the single filing status causes more of your paycheck to be withheld than if you select married. That's because your withholding amount depends on the number of allowances that you claim on your W-4. For example, say you earn taxable wages of $450 weekly and claim one allowance. As of this publication, your withholding rate is $41. If you claim married instead, you set aside just $21 for withholding.
If you are unmarried, legally separated or your spouse is a nonresident of the United States, you can check "Single" in box 3 of your W-4.
Pros and Cons of Claiming Single
When you withhold at the single rate, more federal income tax comes out of your paychecks than if you were married and had the same amount of earnings and allowances. Come tax time, however, you might not owe the Internal Revenue Service -- or you might get a larger refund -- because you paid sufficient taxes through withholding.
The income threshold for single filers generally is narrower than for married-joint filers, resulting in the highest income tax. Single status, however, allows the possibility of filing as head of household, which puts you in a considerably lower tax bracket -- in some cases, lower than married filers.
If you fail to give your employer a valid W-4, your employer can withhold federal income tax at the highest rate of single with zero allowances.
Considerations for Claiming Married
Choosing "Married" on your W-4 gives you a fatter paycheck than if you had claimed single. Problems can ensue, however, if both spouses work and earn similar amounts. The IRS withholding tables for married individuals assume only one spouse is employed. If you file a joint return, you may owe taxes because your combined wages put you in a higher tax bracket.
To avoid this issue, you and your spouse can each check the "Married, but withhold at higher Single rate" box on your W-4. This increases your federal income tax withholding accordingly.
If you and your spouse plan to file separate tax returns, you both are likely to pay more taxes than joint filers, and depending on your income, the same or less than a single person. To ensure enough withholding from your paychecks, you may need to check "Married, but withhold at higher Single rate" on your W-4.
If you are married or have multiple jobs, fill out the Two Earners/Multiple Jobs worksheet of the W-4 to determine if you should have additional taxes withheld. The IRS withholding calculator also can help you properly complete the form.