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

You might get the same tax break anyway under some circumstances

Image shows a couple sitting a computer looking concerned. Text reads:

Image Ellen Lindner © The Balance 2019

It only seems fair that your spouse should qualify as your dependent if you're the family's sole breadwinner, but the IRS doesn't see it that way. As with many tax issues lately, there used to be a loophole, but it's been removed—at least temporarily—by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA). You won't be able to claim your spouse as a dependent under any circumstances until at least 2026, and maybe longer—unless you want to go back and amend a previous year's return.

The Old Loophole

"Your spouse is never considered your dependent," the IRS said. That's pretty black and white, but there was a fine-line distinction here because the statement was 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, and the taxpayer was then entitled to claim that individual's personal exemption on his tax return to reduce his taxable income.

And that's the loophole: Even though you couldn't actually claim your spouse as a dependent, you used to be able to claim her personal exemption under some circumstances before the TCJA took effect. And the end result was largely the same, although this wouldn't qualify you for tax credits that hinge upon having a dependent.

When You File a Joint Tax Return 

You report your combined incomes on the same tax return when you and your spouse file a joint return. You could then claim two personal exemptions through 2017—one for each spouse. This would be the case even if only one of you earned income.

But filing a joint return requires the mutual consent and signatures of both spouses, and 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.

Filing a Separate Married Return or as Head of Household 

This brings us to the second situation in which one spouse could claim the other spouse's personal exemption in years when it was available. You could also claim the second personal exemption without filing a joint return if all of the following are true:

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

Filing a separate return means you're using 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 that you have a divorce decree. It means that your spouse did not live in your home at any point during the last six months of the year. Some other rules apply as well, such as that you paid for more than half your household's expenses for the year and you have a dependent—and no, your spouse doesn't count. 

Here's an example: Your spouse had zero gross income in 2018 because she was away at graduate school and she did not work all year, nor did she have any income-bearing investments. If she didn't file her own tax return for that year and if she couldn't be claimed as a dependent by any other person, then and only then could you claim her personal exemption.

You'd have to file a separate married return or as head of household to do so, and she must have moved onto campus before June 30 and must not ever intend to return to qualify you as head of household. It must be her intention to remain living apart from you indefinitely.

You additionally paid for more than half your residence's expenses and you have another dependent. 

When Your Spouse Is a Nonresident

A similar set of rules applies if your spouse is a nonresident alien:

  • Your spouse must have zero gross income for U.S. tax purposes.
  • Your spouse does not file a U.S. tax return, and
  • Your spouse is not the dependent of any other person

Claiming Personal Exemptions on the 2019 Form 1040

If you file a joint tax return, indicate your name and your spouse's name at the top of the 2019 return. You would then mark that you are married and filing jointly.

Personal exemption boxes have been eliminated from the new 2018 Form 1040.

Indicate your own name at the top of the return if you're married filing separately or you qualify as head of household, then mark the appropriate filing status. 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."

The personal exemption acts just the same as claiming your spouse as a dependent in any of these situations because it reduces your taxable income by the amount of each exemption. But you won't have this option on the 2018 tax return.

Tax Reform and Filing an Amended Return

The TCJA eliminated personal exemptions for tax years 2018 through 2025, but they might come back in tax year 2026 if Congress renews the Act. Meanwhile, you can still make use of this personal exemption loophole if you go back and amend your 2017 return.

You generally have three years to file Form 1040X, the amended return, beginning with the date you filed your original return. If you paid any taxes due on the tax return, you have two years from the date you did so. Your deadline is whichever date is later.

Article Sources

  1. 115th Congress, 1st Session. "The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501, 2016," Page 11. Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Six Important Facts about Dependents and Exemptions." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501, 2016," Pages 19-20. Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  5. Internal Revenue Service. "Tax Reform Provisions that Affect Individuals." Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  6. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501, 2016," Page 7. Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  7. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 501, 2016," Page 8. Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.

  8. Internal Revenue Service. "Instructions for Form 1040X," Page 3. Accessed Feb. 18, 2020.