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Let me clear something up right now.

Just because you're married doesn't necessarily mean you are being penalized. (Right, honey?)

As a matter of fact, some married people get a bonus for sticking to their nuptial vows.

And if

President Clinton


H.R. 4810

, the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2000, agreed to by the House and Senate this week, being married will get even better.

Or will all this hoopla even affect you? Everyone consistently barks about how the marriage penalty is unjust. But does it really hit your bottom line? Do you even know?

What Is the Marriage Penalty?

So what exactly is the marriage penalty? (No, it's not the fact that he regularly leaves the toilet seat up.)

If you're a dual-income couple who makes a fair amount of money, under the current tax system you actually pay more as a married couple than you would if you skipped the trip down the aisle. Let's say you each had taxable income of $100,000 as single people. You would each have a tax bill of $25,681, says Bill Massey, editor at


, an information provider to tax professionals. That means Uncle Sam gets $51,362 ($25,681 x 2) in total from the two of you.

If instead you decided to get married and filed a joint tax return, you would owe $55,049. That's $3,687 ($55,049 - $51,362) more than if you had stayed single. That's the marriage penalty.

But the penalty doesn't hit everyone. One-wage-earner families often end up with a marriage bonus.

A single person with taxable income of $200,000 owes $60,051 in taxes. If that taxpayer marries someone with no income, the couple's tax bill drops to $55,049. That's actually a $5,002

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for being married.

But with so many dual-income married couples out there these days, it seems more people are getting hit with the penalty than are getting the bonus. So the House and Senate this week agreed on a plan to ease the marriage penalty.

Here are the highlights. Under H.R. 4810, the standard deduction will increase for married people who file jointly without itemizing deductions. The standard deduction is a flat amount you can subtract from your adjusted gross income instead of itemizing all of your deductions. This is a fixed amount that is generally based on a person's filing status. Currently, the standard deduction for a single person is $4,400. The married-filing-jointly deduction is only $7,350, 1.67 times the single deduction. Under the proposed bill, the married-filing-jointly standard deduction will be double a single person's standard deduction, or $8,800.

The bill also will raise the 15% income tax bracket for married people who file jointly. Currently, any taxable income up to $43,850 is taxed at 15%. Taxable income between $43,850 and $105,950 is taxed at the 28% rate. So if you have taxable income of $50,000, the first $43,850 would be taxed at 15%. The remainder, $6,150 ($50,000 - $43,850), would be taxed at 28%. See this previous

Tax Forum for more on calculating your tax bill.

The proposal will increase that 15% cutoff point to $44,600. Then the 28% rate will be applied to taxable income above $44,600, but not over $105,950. If you filed as married filing separately, 50% of these increases would apply.

So married folks who use the standard deduction will get more savings under this bill, notes Massey. A married couple with $40,000 of taxable income owes $6,000 in taxes under the current law. With the higher standard deduction, the bill would drop $218 to $5,782.

This proposal won't quite redress the $3,687 difference for the high-income folks in our example above, notes Massey. Under the bill, the married couple filing jointly with taxable income of $200,000 will owe $54,951. That's only a $98 saving ($55,049 - $54,951). So it's not complete fix, but it's something. Since the bill will be phased in over a few years, the increase will slowly grow. For instance, in 2004, the savings will be around $1,125, assuming no inflation, notes Massey.

Will He or Won't He?

So will Clinton sign H.R. 4810, the Marriage Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2000?

Probably not.

"Congress is certainly trying to make it more attractive for the president," says Clint Stretch, director of tax policy at

Deloitte & Touche

. But the drawback to this proposal is that it will benefit all married people -- even the couples who are already getting bonuses. Couples who currently get a bonus will benefit further from the increase in the 15% tax bracket. And we can't have that, can we? Clinton is just looking to help those currently being penalized.

There are other options floating around.

Al Gore

and his people want to introduce a "combined return," says Stretch. Picture one tax return with three columns. One for a couple's combined numbers and the other two to report as single people. Then the lowest tax bill is the one you'll owe. "It's the way a lot of states do it," says Stretch, who points to Virginia as a current example. On the flip side, Gov.

George W. Bush

would like to offer a 10% deduction on a second-earner's income, up to $3,000.

Something will happen. "But to read any of this outside of the November election is a mistake," reminds Stretch.

So stay tuned. But before you get all riled up about it, figure out if your marriage brings home a penalty or a bonus -- at least on the tax front.

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TSC Tax Forum aims to provide general tax information. It cannot and does not attempt to provide individual tax advice. All readers are urged to consult with an accountant as needed about their individual circumstances.