How Should Married Couples Fill Out a W4?

Make sure you determine the proper withholding when filling out your W4.

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When you start a new job, you're required you to fill out a Form W-4 so your employer can calculate how much money needs to be withheld from your paychecks for income taxes. You should complete a new Form W-4 any time your personal or financial situation changes so that your employer can withhold the right amount for taxes. When you’re married, completing the W-4 gets a little more complicated because you also have to take into account how your spouse completes his W-4.

Required Information for Form W-4

When you submit your W-4 to your employer, you tell your employer two things: First, whether to withhold taxes at the married tax rate or the higher single withholding rate and second, how many allowances to use when calculating your tax withholding. Each allowance you claim reduces the amount of your income subject to withholding, which in turn reduces the amount withheld for income taxes. Although you shouldn’t claim more allowances than you are entitled to, you can claim less if you prefer to get a bigger tax refund. When you claim fewer allowances, it means more money will be withheld from each paycheck, resulting in a bigger tax refund when you file your taxes.

Calculating Allowances

You can calculate your allowances using several different approaches. The most straightforward approach is to use the Personal Allowances Worksheet, found in the Form W-4 instructions. The worksheet lists reasons to claim allowances, such as being married and filing a joint return, having only one job and your spouse doesn’t work and having children who are eligible for tax breaks.

However, if you and your spouse both work, expect to make more than $52,000 together if you file a joint return, or expect to make more than $24,000 if you file separately, you should use the Deductions, Adjustments, and Additional Income Worksheet instead. This worksheet takes into consideration all your income and deductions to give you a better estimate of the total number of exemptions you should claim.

Allocating Allowances Between Spouses

When you and your spouse file your respective W-2s, the IRS recommends that you allocate all your allowances to the highest-paying job and claim zero allowances on the W-4s for all other jobs. For example, if the Deductions, Adjustments, and Additional Income Worksheet recommends that you claim a total of four allowances, your job pays you $50,000 and your spouse’s job pays her $60,000, your spouse should claim four allowances on her W-4 and you should claim zero on yours.

Tip

  • The greater the number of allowance you claim, the smaller amount of taxes your employer will withhold. You'll want to be as accurate as possible. If your employer withholds too little, you might be stuck with a big tax bill when you file your returns. You might even get hit with an underpayment penalty. If your employer withholds too much, you'll get a tax refund. Even though a fat refund is nice, it actually represents an interest-free loan to the government. The best course for many married couples is to withhold just enough that you break even come tax time.

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About the Author

Based in the Kansas City area, Mike specializes in personal finance and business topics. He has been writing since 2009 and has been published by "Quicken," "TurboTax," and "The Motley Fool."


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