Taxation and Marriage: A Reappraisal

37 Pages Posted: 30 May 2012 Last revised: 31 Jul 2012

Date Written: May 29, 2012


An income tax cannot simultaneously maintain progressive marginal tax rates, an equal tax burden for all married couples with identical incomes ("couples equity"), and neutrality with respect to the tax burden of married vs. unmarried couples ("marriage neutrality"). Existing treatments of this "trilemma" of marriage taxation argue that marriage neutrality is a more important principle than couples equity or vice-versa and advocate abandonment of the lesser principle. The literature also treats progressivity as inviolate and outside the scope of the trilemma. This paper argues that the prior literature is flawed. The costs of violating the principles of couples equity and marriage neutrality and progressivity are not linear but convex — large violations of any principle are considerably worse than small violations of all. Instead of solving the trilemma by strict adherence to two principles and disregard of the other, the taxation of marriage should violate all of marriage neutrality, couples equity, and progressivity to a lesser degree, sharing the burden of the trilemma more broadly.

Keywords: Taxation, Marriage, Marriage Penalty, Progressivity

JEL Classification: H00, H2

Suggested Citation

Listokin, Yair, Taxation and Marriage: A Reappraisal (May 29, 2012). Yale Law & Economics Research Paper No. 451, Yale Law School, Public Law Working Paper No. 247, Available at SSRN: or

Yair Listokin (Contact Author)

Yale Law School ( email )

P.O. Box 208215
New Haven, CT 06520-8215
United States
203-436-2567 (Phone)

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