Your marginal tax rate (and, in many cases, how you expect your marginal tax rate to change over time) is a critical factor in tax planning decisions.
One thing that married couples often fail to consider in their planning is that, in the majority of cases, after one spouse dies, the widow/widower’s marginal tax rate will be greater than the marginal tax rate that the couple faced in the years immediately prior to the first spouse’s death.
Unfortunately, there is of course no way to know when widowhood will start or how long it will last. I’ve found it challenging to even determine how long widowhood lasts on average. I’ve seen figures from 8 years to 15 years quoted by reputable sources. Regardless, even 8 years is a considerable length of time and merits inclusion in tax planning.
Why Does Marginal Tax Rate Increase When One Spouse Dies?
After one spouse dies, the surviving spouse (starting in the following year, when they would have to begin filing as single) is left with smaller tax brackets. The 10% and 15% tax brackets are exactly half the size for single people that they are for married couples filing jointly. And the standard deduction and personal exemption of the surviving spouse are half of the amounts that the couple used to receive.
As far as income, there is typically a reduction when one spouse dies, but that reduction is typically insufficient to counteract the smaller exemption, standard deduction, and tax brackets. Social Security, for instance, does fall when one spouse dies, but the reduction is usually less than 50% (because if the spouse with the higher retirement benefit dies, the surviving spouse can claim a widow/widower benefit that’s equal to the deceased spouse’s retirement benefit). And investment-related income doesn’t typically decline at all when one spouse dies.
How Does This Affect Tax Planning?
This foreseeable increase in marginal tax rate after the death of one spouse is important because it affects decisions in which you have to compare your current marginal tax rate to the marginal tax rate you expect to have in the future. Specifically:
- It is a minor point in favor of making Roth contributions (as opposed to tax-deferred contributions) during working years,
- It is a significant point in favor of prioritizing retirement spending from tax-deferred accounts (as opposed to Roth accounts) while both spouses are still alive, and
- It is a significant point in favor of doing Roth conversions while both spouses are still alive.