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My wife and I went to a tax return preparation agency to do our 2022 taxes. This was the first time we were married for a full tax year. We're in the USA. We owed a very large amount, and the tax agent gave us advice that I'm not confident in: Change our W4s to withhold as single.

I found that there used to be an option "married, but want to withhold at the higher single rate", but it has been removed in recent updates to the W4 form (see here for example).

I struggle to find anything online -- written since the W4 update -- indicating that putting single withholding on the W4 and filing married-jointly is a good idea. The only thing I found is the section "Can I withhold as single if I'm married", on Investopedia, but this specifically uses language implying single withholding and single filing.

Looking at the W4, I would feel more comfortable writing "Married" on the W4 and using the calculator to estimate the withholding and write it in on the form (more accurately this time).

So, is our agent right that it's fine to do write "single" on the W4 and file jointly? At a minimum, I'm just wondering if it's allowed; any thoughts on whether it's a good idea are welcome.

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    I'm not sure the IRS even knows what you put in your W-4. It goes in your employer's files after they update the payroll software, and that's it. You might reasonably be worried about signing "Under penalties of perjury, I declare that this certificate, to the best of my knowledge and belief, is true, correct, and complete" is perjurious if you check the "single or MFS" box when you're actually going to file MFJ. In that case, as @StanH says, follow the IRS withholding estimator.
    – RonJohn
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:31

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It is allowed, and a lot of people do it. They may have advised that to you based on the "muscle memory" - that was the easiest way to make adjustments until the new form and IRS calculator became available.

The new form is built slightly differently from the old one and has the withholding calculator that you can use to supposedly account for your situation and come up with the additional withholding needed.

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    "The object of the game is to be as honest as the law allows." It's common to adjust the W2 arbitrarily to get withholding to come out closer to what you will actually owe, especially when you have other sources of income that are not withholding taxes so you're likely to underpay. The government is aware of this and treats it as a worksheet rather than an affidavit; anything erroneous will be dealt with when you calculate your taxes via tax (and possibly penalty) due or tax refunded (unfortunately they do not pay interest on refunds.)
    – keshlam
    Mar 12, 2023 at 21:30
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If you're more comfortable using the IRS withholding estimator, do that. And if a significant portion of your income is supplemental (bonus, RSUs, NSO exercises, etc.), self-employment with no withholding, or investment income (interest, dividends, capital gains), the calculator should be able to get you closer than just selecting the single option.

Selecting "Single or Married filing separately" will increase your withholding, and it's something a lot of (in my experience) CPAs, EAs, and advisors have been recommending since the form changed in 2020.

Is it technically inaccurate? Sure, unless you intend on filing MFS. But it will withhold more than the corresponding MFJ withholding option, and the IRS cares mostly about getting their tax revenue, not penalizing people for selecting an option on the W-4 that withholds more than the "correct" selection.

I'd be very, very surprised if you got in trouble for selecting the "Single or Married filing separately" option. It's just not worth the IRS' resources.

The thing you should avoid is intentionally trying to under-withhold.

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