It's perfectly clear to me why the government would provide tax discounts for having children: today's kids are future taxpayers and society wants to incentivize having more of them when birth rates are low. But why provide any benefits whatsoever to people who are merely married? Society at large doesn't benefit from people's marriage, it only benefits when the married couple ends up having children.

Or perhaps there are countries that follow exactly this model and only provide incentives for married couples who have children?

  • A reminder to please not use comments under the question to provide answers - please write a real answer instead.
    – CDJB
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 8:35

11 Answers 11


There probably is no general answer - the tax discount for married couples greatly differs in different tax systems and probably has a different motivation in every system. Some motivations that are often given (not that I necessarily agree with them) are:

  • Marriage, in general, is good for society, because it provides stability, reduces promiscuity, etc.
  • Married partners generally will (and often must) financially support each other, so married people are less likely to have to resort to welfare programs.
  • Most married couples will end up having children, so this supports children, too.

In particular, in , the main tax advantage of being married is the availability of income splitting - which simply means that the income of married couples will be taxed as if each partner earned exactly half of the total income. This provides a tax advantage (because income tax is progressive) which grows the more different the actual incomes of the partners are.

This is usually justified by claiming that married couples typically share their income anyway, and the state should not influence a couple's decision on how they split their work. For example, the political party FDP says:

Warum geht es beim Ehegattensplitting auch um die Freiheit des eigenen Lebensmodells?

Kritiker des Splittingtarifs argumentieren oft damit, dass herkömmliche Arbeitsaufteilungen in Familien aufgebrochen werden müssten. Es geht den Staat aber nichts an, wie Paare sich die Verantwortung für Arbeit und Familie aufteilen.

Translation (by me):

Why is income splitting also about the freedom to choose one's own path in life?

Critics of the income-splitting system often argue, that the traditional distribution of work in families must be broken up. However, it should not concern the state how families distribute the responsibility for work and family.

Source: FDP - Faire Steuern für Paare – Ehegattensplitting beibehalten

  • 22
    The actual reason in Germany is that many voters profit from it and removing it would be unpopular with them. Married couples without children were an exception when this tax regulation was established as were woman with an independent income.
    – Roland
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 5:16
  • 4
    A law from which "many voters" profit from, sounds like government working as intended.
    – Mavrik
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 10:31
  • 14
    @Mavrik: They only profit on the surface and unfairly so. The tax income just has to come from somewhere else.
    – Michael
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 10:53
  • 6
    Married partners generally will (and often must) financially support each other, so married people are less likely to have to resort to welfare programs. If that is a reason, then we should reduce taxes on rich people, then...
    – SJuan76
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 13:37
  • 5
    To keep it fair, married couples not only have advantages, they also have disadvantages. If married people were being treated as single in respect to taxes, it would only be fair they were treated as singles in the parts where they have responsibilities because of marriage. For example if the wife is longtime unemployed, but the husband works, she basically gets nothing. If they were both single, the government would pay her welfare money. So you cannot just remove the benefits of marriage but keep the drawbacks. It's either both or none.
    – nvoigt
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 7:51

In part, this discount is a hold-over from when marriage implied two people living on one income: i.e., husband as sole breadwinner, with wife as a fiscal dependent. This extra dependency (in addition to any child dependents) justified the tax incentive. Of course, single-income, male-breadwinner families are far rarer these days, with only certain income classes being able to afford that arrangement, and only certain religious conservatives finding the arrangement attractive. These days the marriage exemption is touted as either:

  • An effort to incentivize traditional marriage practices, or...
  • An acknowledgement that married couples often have somewhat higher expenditures given the change in life circumstances (e.g., home ownership, and the implication of a desire for parenthood)

I'm not sure the marriage exemption is still meaningful (except for traditional relationships), but trying to eliminate or overly-modify it would create a political firestorm that that no one really wants to face.

  • 7
    Yes, there are fewer single-income households then there used to be. But there are still a lot, and it's not always by choice, and certainly not always because of religious conservatism. Also it doesn't have to be a "sole breadwinner" situation, it could be that one partner's pay is much less. You're right, not everyone can afford it, but they still find themselves in that situation.
    – Nacht
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 13:27
  • @Nacht for example, in many families one spouse has to work part time in order to take care of children
    – Esther
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 13:51
  • @Esther And even if they don't work part-time, it's still true that women generally earn less for the same jobs. Although by that logic we should just give tax breaks to women in general (I guess we kind of do, since the tax is based on the earnings).
    – Barmar
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 14:10
  • 2
    @Barmar when adjusted for job types and years of experience, the wage gap nearly completely disaappears. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:19
  • 8
    @JonathanReez: As someone who's done actual research on this, I can tell you that's not true. Studies carefully control for those variables. It's better in low-paying jobs (where adjusted income is pretty close for women and men) but the higher the status and income potential of a job, the greater the gender disparity. Crap-jobs are egalitarian; good jobs aren't. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 16:25

But why provide any benefits whatsoever to people who are merely married?

Altough the discussion often centres around children, that's wide off the mark.

It's simple: With responsibility come privileges.

When married, you are responsible to pay

  • your partner's livelihood before a social safety net kicks in
  • a nursing home
  • your spouse's funeral
  • your deceased spouse's debts if you don't reject the complete heritage within 6 weeks

Now, if all you got out of an official state marriage would be responsibilities, who would do that? You could stay unmarried and skirt the financial obligations.

Society at large doesn't benefit from people's marriage

This premise is wrong, as society does indeed benefit from one marital partner taking care of the other.

  • Who pays for debts. nursing homes, and the funeral of a single person?
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 15:39
  • 1
    @DKNguyen in Germany, nursing homes are covered by "Pflegeversicherung" (a special part of mandatory health insurance that applies to long term care, standard medical care is still covered by health insurance) and personal assets, if any, or by close relatives (parents or children) if any, else by social security. Debts are part of the estate, so they have to be paid by the beneficiaries, and if none the state will take over the estate and covers as much debt as covered by the estate.. Funeral is paid for by relatives, if there are none by the estate, if there is none by social security. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:48
  • 1
    I can confirm this from own experience (my wife died after long illness, and apart from the horrors of the experience there was also a lot of cost), but it is worth pointing out that there would be other ways to help with that (and in fact there are other ways - e.g. there is substantial tax credit if you care for a disable relative or spouse), and it is probably fair to say that the people who came up with this originally thought this would mostly apply to the combination working husband/housewife. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 21:55
  • @EikePierstorff I appreciate you answering but I'd prefer an answer from the poster because a lot the points made don't really hold up if both individuals in the marriage are self-supporting.
    – DKNguyen
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 22:08
  • 1
    When a single person is unable to provide for their own livelihood, the state pays. Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 21:35

Because every Western country was Christian when tax codes were set up

Christianity is strongly opposed to sex for pleasure. Catholic doctrine (which for a millennia and a half was the only Christian doctrine) is that sex exists only for procreation, and sex for any other reason is sinful. In spite of Biblical examples of polygamy, Christianity fixed on monogamy as the permitted route for procreation. This all carried over into most subsequent Christian sects. And every Western country is or was majority-Christian.

Taxation in a more modern country is not merely about raising money to fight wars. In many cases (carbon taxes, airport taxes, taxes on cigarettes and unhealthy foods, tax breaks on renewable energy) it provides a push through the "invisible hand" of the capitalist economy to promote "good" activities and reduce "bad" activities. If you see sex outside marriage as sinful, then tax breaks to encourage people to marry are simply obvious.

Most historically-Christian countries now have policies driven by secular principles, rather than the (fairly arbitrary) biases of a particular sect. Some aspects of this history often still remain though, like shop opening times on Sundays - or like tax breaks for married people. In time it seems likely that these will fade away, but the spreading secularisation of the West is an ongoing process that's taken hundreds of years to get to this point. In the meantime you can expect odd corner cases like this all over the place.

And some countries (most notably the US) are a lot further behind on secularisation than others. In those cases, some minor inequality in the tax code is a trivial inconvenience compared to institutional racism and sexism.

  • 2
    "Christianity is strongly opposed to sex for pleasure." Citation needed.
    – EvilSnack
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 18:16
  • 4
    @EvilSnack Would Wikipedia do? en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catholic_theology_of_sexuality The Catholic church considers all sexual acts automatically sinful which are not within marriage and could not lead to pregnancy.
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 20:37
  • @Graham: That's the Catholic church, though. Many Protestants don't place the same value on celibacy (and don't require it for their clergy).
    – dan04
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 22:41
  • 1
    @dan04 I didn't mention celibacy. The Protestant churches all historically shared exactly the same opinion of sex and marriage as the Catholic church, namely that sex outside marriage was a sin. Current secular Christianity is different, of course, but my point was that this tax break is an artifact of the state's historical religion.
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 2:36
  • 1
    @EricDuminil True, but off topic from the OP. I had to work fairly hard to keep the answer on topic without getting onto that kind of thing. :)
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 0:07

Perhaps just to win some votes.

In the United Kingdom in 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced a tax break for married couples, which allows one married partner to transfer up to 10% of their tax-free allowance (the amount of income that is not subject to income tax; then £10,500 per year) to the other partner, if the other partner is taxed at the basic rate (20%).

That's a complicated way of saying that, essentially, if one partner is working (but not earning too much) and the other has little or no income, then the couple together could save up to £210 a year on their income tax bill (now £252 a year due to increases in the tax-free allowance). That's not a lot; it affected only about a third of married couples in the country, and the benefit was £4 per week (now £5). It's rather doubtful that such a small financial difference would enter into a couple's decision to get married.

But that wasn't the point. Cameron's public messaging about the tax break was not about the amount of money, or about encouraging people to get married. According to him (quoted in The Telegraph, emphasis mine):

“This policy is about far more than pounds and pence. It’s about valuing commitment,” Mr Cameron added. “Families are the bedrock of our society. It’s families who raise our children, look after our old and keep our country going. And this tax change is about saying as a society, we recognise that.”

Similar language appeared in the party's 2010 manifesto (page 41, emphasis mine):

We will recognise marriage and civil partnerships in the tax system in the next Parliament. This will send an important signal that we value couples and the commitment that people make when they get married.

So it was about making a statement that his government valued a certain segment of society, rather than achieving an economic outcome. Or in other words, it was about communicating with voters.

Perhaps more tellingly, despite the policy being decided upon in 2010 and formally announced in 2013, the tax change was timed to come into effect in April 2015, only one month before the next general election was to take place.


This is a relict from times when only man was working. Tax was calculated from the family income, but a woman was not expected to make any notable part of it.

Fixing this historical nonsense is difficult because additional taxes now paid by married couples then must be paid by other groups that oppose. Switzerland failed to pass a referendum.

  • Interesting that it’s apparently the opposite problem in Switzerland. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 13:24
  • Not always true. The German system was introduced because more women worked. Originally a married couple would pay the same amount of taxes as an individual with the same income, which was a serious disadvantage. See de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ehegattensplitting
    – Jan
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 19:50

We don't.

We have three kinds of relationships

  • concubinage (= people are/live together without any legal consequences)
  • PACS (= civil contract)
  • marriage (= civil contract with more possibilities financially)

The last two are very close, tax wise.

What gives you extra tax relief are children, each counts as 1/2 human (obviously the ones who decided this never had children...) and applies to the parent(s) to whom children are attached to. In other words, if you are a family of 4, you are seen as 1 + 1 + 2*0.5 = 3 items.

  • This is quite different to the UK. We have the same three categories to which you refer but the tax system is entirely deaf and blind to marriage. Husbands and wives, or civil partners, are taxed entirely independently of one another. There is no relief whatever for children, though a small automatic benefit is paid independently of the tax system for the first two children in a family. Nothing is paid for the third and subsequent children.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 20:29
  • @WS2: so are there any formal advantages of being married? (heritage, ability to get information at the hospital as "family" - these are the ones I can think of for France)
    – WoJ
    Commented Aug 25, 2023 at 20:35
  • There are no obvious advantages so far as income or capital gains tax is concerned - but inheritance tax is another area altogether. There are plenty of other non-tax-related advantages in marriage, such as the ones to which you refer.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 18:28

Arguably governments are pandering symbolically to a wealthier section of the electorate who still actually get married.

The tax allowance often isn't very significant, and even over decades would scarcely defray the most basic expenses of the marriage itself.

But it's also possible governments see it as somewhat financially desirable that people declare their relationships to the state, form stable and long-lasting relationships, and that couples assume joint legal and financial responsibility for each other.

This potentially avoids for example social security payments during brief spells of unemployment (if there are two earners), and avoids some health-related and old-age care costs.

  • 6
    If you refused this tax split, you’d have to pay benefits to a very poor person who is married to a very rich person, so that person can live without starving.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Aug 17, 2023 at 21:59
  • 3
    @gnasher729: This isn't true. In the UK, for example, taxation is done at the individual level but to claim benefits you are assessed as a couple (whether married or not). Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 7:50
  • 2
    @JackAidley, the technical term in social security law is "living together as a married couple" (or formerly, living together as husband and wife, "LTAHAW"). The problem is that for those who aren't in fact married, determining who is living together at any given moment, and what the nature of that living together is, is quite a tricky question whenever the state is trying to screw people into the ground, and so the couple have an interest in misrepresenting their relationship, and poverty tends to make relationships unstable anyway. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 9:07
  • 2
    Also with regard to taxation, it is predominantly individual, but there are some concessions to married and unmarried couples. These concessions include some transfers of allowances possible between the married, and how some very little jobs are effectively untaxed (and exempt from NI) which is a concession to maintained homemakers who do a little bit of work for pocket money, but the NI cuts back in regressively once the earner is working more than a few hours a week. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 9:08
  • 3
    Can you provide some reference to this surprising assertion that only wealthier people "still actually get married"? The best I could dig up was numbers from the BLS, which don't seem to show that at all.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 14:20

A general philosophy of taxation in (and elsewhere) is that things that operate as an economic unit are taxed as a unit. For example if half of a company has mainly expenses and the other half is making profit, only profit after expenses gets taxed; after all the expenses may be necessary for the profit. Or if I am buying office equipment so I can do my job, I may tax-deduct it (with some restrictions).

Now, the tax benefits in question treat a married couple as such an economic unit. This in turn is based on the assumption that married partners have a high level of trust in each other and share everything. For example, if one partner focuses more on running the household such that the other partner can put some extra focus on their job to earn more, this is seen as happening within the unit. From this perspective, the tax benefits are not benefits but avoid couples being disproportionately affected by tax progression, etc.

If we suddenly stopped allowing married couples to be taxed as a unit, this would lead to some weird incentives, for example:

  • To start simple, let’s consider the tax on gains from financial investments. Right now, these are not taxed below 1000 € (of gains) for a single person and 2000 € for a couple. Therefore, for a married couple, it doesn’t matter which partner owns their financial assets. If the couple were not treated as a unit and taxed separately, they would benefit from splitting their assets in such a manner that the prospected gains are equally distributed.

  • Suppose, I get a new job while my spouse is unemployed. Without taxing couples as a unit, it would be advantageous if my new employer hired both of us half time (for half the income) instead, although I do all the work. And a sufficiently shady employer might actually do this for part of our tax gains.

  • Suppose I work full time, while my spouse is unemployed and running the household, taking care of our children, etc. Without taxing couples as a unit, I could reduce the taxes we pay as follows: I hire my spouse as a housekeeper any nanny and pay her with part of my income. At first glance, this would increase the taxes we pay due to double taxation: What I pay my spouse gets taxed as my income as well as theirs. However, I can tax-deduce expenses for a housekeeper, nanny, etc. to a certain extent. Thus, I can avoid double taxation and benefit from equalising our incomes and being less affected by tax progression. Figuring out the optimal wage I pay my spouse is left as an exercise to the reader.

In all these examples, I can at least partially restore the tax benefits for couples, but I create a lot of bureaucracy, pointless work, etc. In particular, couples who have enough time at their hand to do these kinds of things benefit without creating anything of value in the process.

Finally mind that I am merely describing the rationale, not fully endorsing it. Some of its assumptions as well as the choice of a marriage (instead of a family) as an economic unit are debatable. Also, many of the above problems can arguably be resolved by changing the respective parts of the tax system – which leads to another reason why this exists: We have a complex tax system that is organically grown to compensate for all kinds of things and the benefits for couples are arguably one of them and made other compensations unnecessary. It would thus not be a good idea to abolish those benefits in isolation – you would have to overhaul the entire system.

  • Arguably, paying people for taking care of children might be a way to highlight how much this is actually worth (and giving your spouse some social security insurance, too). Might not be the worst thing to do, especially if you and your spouse break up at some point. Commented Aug 18, 2023 at 23:45
  • @PaŭloEbermann: Indeed. However, if that’s the way to implement this, it should be as easy as possible, if not even automatic in certain cases. Also mind that the social security system already does account for this to some extent, although arguably not enough.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 10:10

The tax benefit for having a child only kicks in after you choose to have a child - the process of having a child also would take money, and the decision to have a child implies savings for the child, which costs money

Marriage helps with child rearing in a few ways - it helps in reducing the need for paternity tests, ideally providing multiple incomes to support the child (Whether through a marriage, or through a child support alimony post-divorce, either way works out to some extent), and helps with determining family names for an ancestral record of who is related to whom.

But there's a problem with only providing tax refund on having a child - there's costs incurred to have a child (Some of which mostly apply to having a planned child more than an unplanned one, but nonetheless, still exist as a cost):

1.) They need the free time to engage in the act of sexual reproduction;

2.) They're going to incur multiple costs of pregnancy tests, and the follow-up appointments that come from needing an ultrasound/additional healthcare;

3.) The amount of food they're going to eat during the 9 months pregnancy period will likely increase;

4.) They'll want additional things to have at their home when the child is born;

5.) Any miscarriages or unplanned abortions that happen would effectively make all the above for nothing, and would require trying again and incurring all the costs again (If they really want that tax benefit, or if they just want a child for non-tax benefit reasons.);

6.) If they do in fact have the child, now they have maternity and paternity leave often being used to care for the newborn baby, and there are additional costs involved.

Most married couples that plan to have children will, if they aren't able to save up to prepare for those costs, simply not have a child (Or perhaps they'll just adopt or foster a child - but that's not the usual reason for a tax benefit for children.). Tax benefits of simply being married, however, would allow married couples that plan to have children save up more as a result of the tax benefit of being married.

  • 1
    Then it would make sense to stop providing marriage benefits to people over the age of 45. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 1:45
  • @JonathanReez: To be fair, that's ignoring the possibility of freezing eggs and sperm for IVF later on, though that in itself can incur additional costs. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 2:13
  • 1
    "Then it would make sense to stop providing marriage benefits to people over the age of 45. " If there's a tax benefit to being divorced then that just encourages divorce. That's not saying these couples would live any differently, they'd just no longer be married on paper for tax purposes. I get the idea but consider the cost savings to the government in having married couples filing a single joint return vs. them filing two separate returns. Take whatever it costs to process that extra tax return, split it down the middle, then give that much money to those filing a joint return. Win!
    – MacGuffin
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 3:23
  • @MacGuffin: The part about having joint returns brings to mind another point - having to means test the tax discount in this case is probably not worth the effort, especially if one person hits 45 and the other person in the marriage doesn't. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 8:14
  • 2
    @jonthanreez - And here I am paying for college while over 60... Having and supporting kids isn't a once and done thing, and having kids happens across a broad range of parent ages.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 15:57

It used to be the other way round in Poland - you had to pay extra taxes if you did not have children. From Wikipedia:

Introduced Bykowe, which was a tax on childlessness that included a tax on those unmarried above 21 years from January 1, 1946 to November 29, 1956. It was later extended to those over 25 years of age until January 1, 1973 when it was repealed.

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