Can You Claim Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend as a Dependent?

The IRS has a loose definition of ‘qualifying relative’

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First, the good news: The Internal Revenue Service defines “relative” somewhat loosely when it comes to who you can claim as a dependent on your tax return. The not-so-good news is that the rules for who you can claim are intricate enough that not many people can qualify. Your boyfriend or girlfriend might be your “qualifying relative,” but only if they meet four specific criteria:

  1. Residency
  2. Income limits
  3. Status
  4. Support

The Residency Test

Your partner must actually live with you in your home to qualify as your dependent. She can’t maintain her own residence, not even for part of the year. Her address must be your address throughout all 365 days…sort of.“Temporary” absences are okay. She might be hospitalized, incarcerated, or maybe she serves in the military or took an extended vacation. As long as she intends to return to your home after these events—and she actually does—and the circumstances don’t last for more than six months or so, you should be okay. Maybe you’ve heard that some qualifying relatives don’t actually have to live with you. That’s true, but there’s a catch. This rule is reserved for literal relatives, which your girlfriend technically is not. So you’re out of luck for that tax year if she moves in with you in March, but if she’s still living with you on Jan. 1 of the new year and she remains with you all through that year, you can claim her as a dependent—assuming she meets the other qualifying rules.

Income and Support Factors

Basically, your partner must be living with you because he can’t afford to live on his own, and this can’t be just your objective opinion. There are actual income limits. He can’t earn more than $4,150 as of the 2018 tax year. And this is his gross income, not his taxable income after various tax deductions are taken. Certain tax-exempt sources of income, such as Supplemental Security, don’t count toward the total, but unearned income such as interest or dividends does.

You must also pay for more than half of his yearly support: his share of the rent, or principal mortgage payment, utilities, food, clothing, and other “essential” expenses.

Paying 50% of these costs won’t cut it. You have to pay 51% or more. If $600 of your monthly budget is attributable to him, and if he contributes his limited income of $345 a month toward paying for them, you can’t claim him as a dependent because $345 represents more than 57% of his living expenses. But if $1,000 of your budget is dedicated to his support, you’re fine because now he’s paying $345 and you’re paying $655 a month, which comes out to more than 65%.

Other Qualifying Issues

Unfortunately, we’re not done yet. What if your girlfriend is still legally married to someone else because her divorce isn’t final yet? She must file a separate married return, not a joint return with her soon-to-be ex if she’s going to qualify as your dependent, and neither she nor her spouse can owe taxes if they file separately. An exception exists if she’s filing jointly simply to claim a refund of all taxes withheld from her limited pay. 

She must also be a U.S. citizen, national, or resident alien, or a resident of Canada or Mexico. Of course, establishing residency in those countries might mean that she’s not living with you full time, so…she’s not your dependent. Finally, no one else can claim her as a dependent. The Internal Revenue Code provides that only one taxpayer can claim an individual as a dependent per tax year.

Is Your Relationship Legal?

State law can get involved here as well. The IRS says that your relationship with your partner must be “legal” in the state where you reside. No, this doesn’t mean you have to tie the knot or enter into a recognized domestic partnership, but it could be a problem if your boyfriend is still legally married because it’s still illegal in some states to cohabit with a partner who’s married to someone else.

What’s in This for You?

So is it even worth jumping through all these tax loops to claim your boyfriend or girlfriend as a dependent? It used to be that you could slash $4,050 off your taxable income in the form of a personal exemption for each dependent you could claim, but not anymore. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminates personal exemptions from the tax code from 2018 through 2025, and possibly longer if Congress acts to renew the TCJA when it expires. But the TCJA might also compensate you for that lost $4,050 if you can claim your partner because having a dependent can qualify you for the head of household filing status. This is moot if you’re already supporting a child or other dependent—you’d qualify as head of household anyway—but if your girlfriend is your only dependent, claiming her increases your standard deduction by $6,150 as of 2019. The standard deduction is $12,200 for single filers, (up from $12,000 in 2018), while the head of household standard deduction is $18,350 in 2019, up from $18,000 in 2018. Of course, there are a few other rules for qualifying as a head of household in addition to having at least one dependent. Many of them mirror the same rules for claiming your girlfriend anyway. For example, you must pay more than 50% of your home’s expenses. And you can’t be “considered married” to your girlfriend or to anyone else either, for that matter. If you don’t have a divorce decree or a legal separation order, you can’t have lived with your spouse during the last six months of the year. And if you were, this would disqualify your girlfriend as your dependent anyway if she wasn’t living with you and your spouse at the same time. Even aside from your filing status, numerous tax deductions and tax credits are linked to having a dependent.

The IRS provides a withholding calculator to help you figure out if all of your dependents are really your dependents for tax purposes.

Should You Just Get Married?

You might be wondering by now if it would just be easier to get married. Maybe…but maybe not. Your standard deduction would hike even more if you and your partner got married and filed a joint married return—up to $24,400 in the 2019 tax year, $6,050 more than the head of household standard deduction. But, you’d be gaining a spouse and losing a dependent, which could cost you some of those other tax breaks available to taxpayers with dependents. It used to be that you could claim a dependent exemption for your spouse under certain isolated circumstances up through 2017—you had to file a separate married return and your spouse had to have zero income—but that’s no longer the case now that the TCJA has repealed exemptions from the tax code. Of course, as with all things taxes, it can come down to your unique personal circumstances. Consult with a tax professional if you’re on the fence about getting down on bended knee to make sure you understand all the implications, and to make absolutely sure that your girlfriend qualifies as your dependent in the first place.