In the law passed by Congress on Jan. 1, multiple thresholds for higher rates kick in for married couples only $50,000 above where they hit for singles. Married taxpayers with income of at least $300,000 also face limits on the value of deductions and personal exemptions that were reinstated for 2013.
“If they’re sending a message, it’s not to be married,” Perry said of U.S. tax policy. “People who are married, working, earning two good salaries, are being penalized.”
The budget deal struck by Congress and new taxes stemming from the 2010 health-care law are exacerbating the long-established marriage penalty for high earners. The added bite will affect taxes they pay for 2013, and not the current filing season that starts this month.
Accountants and wealth advisers are recommending that high earners start planning and strategizing about how they recognize income from investments or when they take deductions.
Three thresholds are now in effect at which higher taxes can affect top earners. Taxable income exceeding $450,000 a year for married couples and $400,000 for singles is the crossover point to the top income-tax bracket of 39.6 percent, from 35 percent, and the 20 percent rate for capital gains and dividends, compared with 15 percent.
The second threshold starts at adjusted gross income of more than $250,000 for married couples compared with $200,000 for individuals. Those are the markers for a new 3.8 percent surtax on investment income and a 0.9 percent added levy on wages starting this year. Both were enacted in 2010 to help finance the expansion of medical coverage.
Limits on the value of deductions and personal exemptions start at a third level: $300,000 a year for married couples and $250,000 for individuals.
Consider a couple living in New York state with each earning $280,000 in annual wages — for a combined $560,000. The couple will pay about $22,000 more in taxes this year if they are married filing jointly than if they were single, according to an analysis by Perry. That assumes each of them has $20,000 in capital gains and dividends as well as $35,500 each in deductions for charitable contributions, mortgage interest and real estate taxes.
As a married couple, more of their income is subject to the phase-outs on personal exemptions and limits on itemized deductions as well as the higher taxes on wages and investment income from both the health-care law and budget deal.
“They made it worse because of where they set the brackets,” Perry said of the marriage penalty as it applies to high-earning married couples.
That’s because the thresholds for individuals and married couples at the higher rates are close together, said Scott Kaplowitch, a partner at the Boston-based accounting firm of Edelstein & Co.