Can You Claim Your Spouse as a Dependent on Your Tax Return?

You might get the same tax break anyway under some circumstances

Image shows a couple sitting a computer looking concerned. Text reads: "Can a family breadwinner claim her spouse as a dependent? 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"

Image Ellen Lindner © The Balance 2019

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 said in its 2016 version of Publication 501 that your spouse is never considered your dependent. That's pretty black and white, but there was a fine-line distinction because the statement was something of a technicality.

There used to be a loophole in the tax code, but it was repealed—at least temporarily—by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) in 2018.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. You'll have to wait until at least 2026 when the law expires, and maybe even longer if the TCJA is renewed.

You also have the option of going back and amending your 2017 tax return to take advantage of this tax break.

The 2017 Loophole

In tax terms, a "dependent" is someone who meets the criteria for being either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative. The taxpayer could claim that individual's personal exemption on their tax return to reduce their taxable income. And that was the loophole.

Even though you couldn't actually claim your spouse as a dependent, you used to be able to claim their personal exemption under some circumstances, which worked out to more or less the same thing—at least until the TCJA eliminated that provision from the tax code.

This wouldn't qualify you for tax credits that hinge upon having a dependent, but you could deduct the same exemption amount for your spouse as you could for a dependent.

Claiming the Exemption on a Joint Return

You and your spouse would report your combined incomes on the same tax return if you file a joint married return. You could then claim two personal exemptions through 2017—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, 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 their consent and sign the return. Or perhaps the tax impact is more advantageous when spouses file 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 if all of the following were true:

  • You file 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 a separate return means you're using either the married filing separately filing status or the head of household status.

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 cannot have lived with you at any time during the last six months. You must pay for more than half the costs of maintaining your home and you must have a qualifying dependent who isn't your spouse.

An Example

Your spouse 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. It must be their intention to remain living apart from you indefinitely. You additionally 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 qualify as head of household under these circumstances and claim 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 to meet the other two tests for qualifying as HOH—having another dependent and personally paying for more than half your household's expenses.

Filing an Amended Return

You generally have three years to file Form 1040X, the amended 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.

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