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

You might get the same tax break anyway under some circumstances

Elderly spouses smiling and hugging. Can one of them claim the other as a dependent?
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If you're married and you're the family's sole breadwinner, it only seems to make sense that your spouse should be your dependent, if only from a practical standpoint. After all, you provide for her. But the Internal Revenue Service doesn't see it that way, at least not entirely. As with many tax issues, there are some loopholes and gray areas. 

The General Rule

The IRS makes it clear that you cannot claim your spouse as a dependent on your tax return in Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information.

It says, "Your spouse is never considered your dependent." That's pretty unequivocal, but we have to make a fine-line distinction here because the statement is something of a technicality.

In tax terms, a "dependent" meets the criteria of being either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative of the taxpayer, who is then entitled to claim that person's personal exemption on his tax return to reduce his taxable income. Now here's the loophole: Even though you can't claim your spouse as a dependent, you can still claim her personal exemption under some circumstances.  

When You File a Joint Tax Return 

When you and your spouse file a joint tax return, you report your combined incomes on the same return and you can claim two personal exemptions—one for each spouse. This is the case even if only one of you earned income. You can also claim personal exemptions for any dependents you might have, such as a qualifying child or children or a qualifying relative.

But filing a joint return requires the mutual consent and signatures of both spouses. There might be circumstances under which spouses are unable or unwilling to file jointly. For example, a spouse might be incapacitated and unable to give her consent and sign the return. Or perhaps the tax impact is more advantageous when spouses file separate returns.

This brings us to the second situation when one spouse can claim the other spouse's personal exemption.

When You File a Separate Married Return or As Head of Household 

You can also claim a personal exemption for your spouse without filing a joint return if: 

  • You file a separate married return.
  • Your spouse has zero gross income for the year.
  • Your spouse therefore doesn't file a tax return of her own. 
  • Your spouse is not a dependent of another person, regardless of whether the other person actually claims her.

Filing a separate return means that you are using either the married filing separate status or the head of the household status because you meet the IRS criteria for being "considered unmarried" on the last day of the tax year. For head of household purposes, being considered unmarried does not necessarily mean you have a divorce decree, but your spouse cannot have lived in your home at any point during the last six months of the year. Some other rules also apply, such as that you paid for more than half your household's expenses for the year and you have a dependent, such as your child. 

Here's an example: Your spouse has zero gross income because she is away at graduate school and she did not work all year nor did she have any income-bearing investments.

If she doesn't file her own tax return and if she can't be claimed as a dependent by any other person, then and only then can you claim her personal exemption, but only if you file a separate married return or as head of household. And to file as head of household, she must have moved onto campus before June 30 and she has not returned to your residence since. You paid for more than half your residence's expenses and you have a dependent. 

When 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.
  • Your spouse is not the dependent of any other person.

How to Claim Your Spouse's Personal Exemption

If you file a joint tax return, you would indicate your name and your spouse's name at the top of the return.

You would then mark that you are married and filing jointly. This entitles you to check the "Yourself" and "Spouse" boxes in the exemptions section of the return. 

In the second and third situations, you would indicate your own name at the top of the return. Then you would mark the appropriate filing status, either married filing separately or head of household. Then, according to the IRS in Publication 501: 

"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." 

In any of these situations, the personal exemption acts just the same as claiming your spouse as a dependent because it reduces your taxable income by the amount of the exemption. The end result is the same.