Can I Claim My Spouse as a Dependent on My Tax Return?

Elderly spouses smiling and hugging. Can one of them claim the other as a dependent?
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People often ask if the husband, or wife, can claim the other spouse as a dependent. The following scenario, which a reader emailed to me, pretty much outlines the basic situation:

"My husband is the only earning member & he supports all our expenses. Can my husband claim me & my children as dependents?"

General Rule

A person cannot claim his or her spouse as a dependent on their tax return. The IRS makes this clear in Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information, where they write, "Your spouse is never considered your dependent."

But here we need to draw a distinction. The word dependent means something specific in the tax code. Dependents meet the criteria of being either qualifying children or qualifying relatives of another person.

The benefit of claiming a person as a dependent is that we are allowed to claim that person's personal exemption on our tax return. This increases the dollar amount we claim for personal exemptions, which in turn can reduce our taxable income.

Even though a person can never claim his or her spouse as a dependent, a person can claim his or her spouse's personal exemption. That is to say, one spouse can claim the other spouse's personal exemption without claiming that spouse as a dependent. One spouse can claim his or her spouse's personal exemption in three specific circumstances.

First Situation

One spouse can claim the other spouse's personal exemption if both spouses file their tax return jointly.

When both spouses decide to file jointly, they report their combined incomes on one tax return. And on that one tax return, they claim two personal exemptions: one for each spouse. They also claim personal exemptions for any dependents they are eligible to claim the qualifying child or qualifying relative criteria.

Filing a joint return means there are two taxpayers filing one return. This requires the mutual consent of each spouse. There may be circumstances when spouses are unable or unwilling to file jointly. For example, a spouse may be incapacitated and unable to consent to a joint return. Or perhaps the tax impact is more advantage when filing separate returns. This brings us to the second situation when one spouse can claim the other spouse's personal exemption.

Second Situation

If all of the following conditions are true, then one person can claim the personal exemption for his or her spouse without filing a joint return:

  • You are filing a separate return (that is, you are not filing a joint return with your spouse);
  • Your spouse has zero gross income for the year;
  • Your spouse does not file a tax return for the year; and
  • Your spouse is not a dependent of another person, regardless of whether the other person actually claims your spouse as a dependent.

Filing a separate return means that you are using either the married filing separate status or the head of the household status because the person meets the definition of being considered unmarried for the year.

In other words, in this situation, we have one spouse filing a separate return, and the other spouse filing no return at all.

The spouse who is filing a separate return can claim her spouse's personal exemption only if all of the conditions outlined in the bullet points above are true.

Suppose her spouse has zero gross income because the spouse is away at graduate school and didn't earn any income. As long as the other spouse does not file his or her own tax return, and as long as the other spouse cannot be claimed as a dependent by any other person, then and only then can the wife claim her spouse's personal exemption.

Third Situation

What if your spouse is a nonresident alien? A similar set of rules applies to this situation:

  • Your nonresident alien spouse must have zero gross income for U.S. tax purposes;
  • Your nonresident alien spouse does not file a U.S. tax return; and
  • Your spouse cannot be a dependent of another person.

How to Claim Your Spouse's Personal Exemption

In the first situation, you claim your spouse's personal exemption by filing a joint return. You indicate your name and your spouse's name in name section at the top of the return; you mark that you are married and filing jointly, and you check the Yourself and Spouse boxes in the Exemptions section.

In the second and third situations, you claim your spouse's personal exemption by filing a separate return. You indicate your name in the name section at the top of the return, and you mark the appropriate filing status such as married filing separately or head of household. Then:

"To claim the exemption for your spouse, check the box on line 6b of Form 1040 or Form 1040A and enter the name of your spouse in the space to the right of the box. Enter the SSN or ITIN of your spouse in the space provided at the top of Form 1040 or Form 1040A." (Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information, section on Your Spouse's Exemption).