It only seems fair that you should be able to claim your spouse as your dependent if you're the family's sole breadwinner, but the IRS doesn't see it that way. The agency has clearly indicated that your spouse is never considered your dependent. That's pretty black and white, but the issue wasn't always that unequivocal. There used to be a loophole in the tax code, at least until 2026.
The loophole was repealed—at least temporarily—by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2018. You won't be able to claim your spouse as a dependent in any respect while the TCJA remains in effect through 2026, or even longer if the TCJA is renewed. You might still have time to go back and amend a previous year's return, however.
The Loophole Before the TCJA
A dependent is someone who meets the criteria for being either a "qualifying child" or a "qualifying relative." A taxpayer could claim that individual's personal exemption on their tax return to reduce their taxable income through 2017, and that created a loophole in the rule that you can't claim your spouse as a dependent. You could realize a financial break regardless, however, before the TCJA went into effect.
You used to be able to claim your spouse's personal exemption under some circumstances, which worked out to more or less the same as claiming them as a dependent, at least until the TCJA eliminated this provision from the tax code effective 2018.
This provision wouldn't qualify you for tax credits that depend upon having a dependent, but you could at least deduct the same exemption amount for your spouse as you would for a dependent.
Claiming the Exemption on a Joint Return
You and your spouse would have reported your combined incomes on the same tax return if you filed a joint married return. You could then have claimed two personal exemptions, at least through 2017 and possibly again in 2026—one for each of you. 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, so there might be circumstances under which spouses were unable or unwilling to file jointly. For example, a spouse might have been incapacitated and unable to give their consent and sign the return, or perhaps the tax impact was more advantageous when spouses filed separate returns.
Filing a Separate Married Return
You could also claim your spouse's personal exemption in years when it was available without filing a joint return, but only if you met four qualifying rules:
- You filed a separate married return.
- Your spouse had zero gross income for the year.
- Your spouse didn't file a tax return of their own, and
- Your spouse was not the dependent of another person, regardless of whether the other person actually claimed them.
Filing as Head of Household
You must meet the IRS criteria for being "considered unmarried" on the last day of the tax year to qualify as head of household, which means that your spouse couldn't have lived with you at any time during the last six months of the tax year if you were still legally married. You must have paid more than half the costs of maintaining your home and you must have had a qualifying dependent who isn't your spouse.
As an example, your spouse might have had zero gross income in 2017 because they were away at graduate school and didn't work all year, nor did they have any income-producing investments. You could claim their personal exemption if they didn't file their own tax return for that year and if they couldn't be claimed as a dependent by any other taxpayer.
But to qualify you as head of household, they must have moved onto campus before June 30, and they must not ever intend to return to your home. It must be their intention to remain living apart from you indefinitely. You additionally must have paid for more than half your residence's expenses and you must have had another dependent.
When Your Spouse Is a Nonresident Alien
A similar set of rules applies if your spouse is a nonresident alien. You could have qualified as head of household under these circumstances and claimed your spouse's exemption if:
- Your spouse had zero gross income for U.S. tax purposes.
- Your spouse did not file a U.S. tax return, and
- Your spouse is not the dependent of any other person.
You would also have had to meet the other two tests for qualifying as head of household—having another dependent and personally paying for more than half your household's expenses.
Filing an Amended 2017 Return
You might have the option of going back and amending your 2017 tax return to take advantage of this tax loophole if you don't want to wait until 2026 until the TCJA potentially expires and personal exemptions are reinstated to the tax code.
You generally have three years to file Form 1040X, the amended federal tax return, beginning with the date you filed your original return. This means that the last day to amend your 2017 tax return would be Tax Day 2021 if you filed your 2017 return on Tax Day 2018.
If you paid any taxes due on that 2017 tax return, you have only two years from the date you did so. Your deadline is whichever date is later.