Can You Claim Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend as a Dependent?

The IRS has a loose definition of ‘qualifying relative’

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A dependent can be either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative for tax purposes, and the Internal Revenue Service defines “relative” somewhat loosely. But the rules for who you can claim are still intricate enough to make qualifying somewhat difficult. Your boyfriend or girlfriend might be your dependent as a “qualifying relative,” but only if they meet some specific criteria:

  1. Residency
  2. Income limits
  3. Marital status
  4. Support needs

The Residency Test

Your partner must actually live with you in your home to qualify as your dependent. They can’t maintain their own residence, not even for part of the year. Their address must be your address throughout all 365 days.

“Temporary” absences are okay. Your partner might be hospitalized, incarcerated, or maybe serving in the military. Maybe they've taken an extended vacation. As long as they intend to return to your home after these events—and they actually do so—this is okay.

Some qualifying relatives don’t actually have to live with you, but this rule is reserved for literal relatives, which your partner is not.

Your parent is an example of a relative who doesn't have to live with you.

You can't claim your partner as a dependent for that tax year if they move in with you in March, but you can claim them in the next year if they're still living with you on January 1 of the new year and they remain with you all through that year—assuming they meet all the other qualifying rules.

Income and Support Factors

Your partner must be living with you because they can’t afford to live on their own, and this can’t be just an objective opinion. The IRS imposes actual income limits.

They can’t earn more than $4,200 as of the 2019 tax year—the tax return you'll file in 2020. This figure is adjusted for inflation, so it can be expected to increase periodically. It used to be the amount of the personal exemption that was available each year, but the exemption has been repealed through 2025 under the terms of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

This is your partner's gross income, not their taxable income after they take various tax deductions. 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 their yearly support: their share of the rent or principal mortgage payment, utilities, food, clothing, and other “essential” expenses. Paying 50% of these costs isn't sufficient. You have to pay 51% or more.

You can’t claim your partner as a dependent if $600 of your monthly budget is attributable to them, and if they contribute their limited income of $345 a month, because $345 represents more than 57% of their living expenses. But you can claim them if $1,000 of your budget is dedicated to their support, because they're paying $345 and you’re paying $655 a month, which comes out to more than 65%.

If Your Partner Is Married

Your partner must file a separate married return, not a joint return with their spouse, if they're still legally married to someone else because their divorce isn’t final yet. Neither your partner nor their spouse can owe taxes if they file separate married returns.

An exception exists if they're filing jointly simply to claim a refund of all taxes withheld from their limited pay. 

The IRS additionally says that your relationship with your partner must be “legal” in the state where you reside. This doesn’t mean you have to get married or enter into a recognized domestic partnership, but it could be a problem if your partner is still legally married to someone else and you live in a state where it’s illegal to cohabit with a partner who’s married to someone else.

Other Rules

Your partner must also be a U.S. citizen, national, resident alien, or a resident of Canada or Mexico. Of course, establishing residency in those countries would probably mean that they're not living with you full time, so they're not your dependent.

Finally, no one else can claim your partner as a dependent. The Internal Revenue Code provides that only one taxpayer can claim the same individual as a dependent per tax year.

Advantages of Having 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 before the TCJA eliminated personal exemptions from the tax code. The TCJA runs from 2018 through 2025.

The TCJA is set to "sunset" or expire in December 2025, but it's possible that Congress could renew some or all of its terms, so there's no guarantee that personal exemptions will come back at that time.

You might still qualify for other tax breaks related to having a dependent, however. For example, The TCJA also introduced the Credit for Other Dependents in 2018, worth $500. Tax credits are particularly beneficial because, unlike tax deductions, they come directly off any tax you owe to the IRS dollar for dollar. Deductions only reduce your taxable income.

Qualifying as Head of Household

Having a dependent can also qualify you for the advantageous head of household filing status. You’d qualify as head of household anyway if you're already supporting a child or other dependent, but otherwise, claiming your partner as a dependent might increase your standard deduction by $6,150 as of the 2019 tax year. The standard deduction for single filers is $12,200, while the head of household standard deduction is $18,350.

These figures increase to $12,400 for single filers and to $18,650 for head of household filers in the 2020 tax year because they're indexed for inflation, a difference of $6,250.

There are a few other rules for qualifying as a head of household, however, in addition to having at least one dependent. Many of them mirror the same rules for claiming your partner as a dependent anyway:

  • You must pay more than 50% of your home’s expenses
  • You can’t be married to your partner, or “considered married” to anyone else, either. This means you and your spouse haven't lived together at any point during the last six months of the year if you're not legally divorced or separated by court order yet.

This six-month rule would disqualify your partner as your dependent anyway, assuming they weren't living with you and your spouse at the same time.

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 Get Married?

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. That's $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.

You can't claim your spouse as a dependent as of 2020, although you could claim a personal exemption for them under certain isolated circumstances 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 since the TCJA has repealed exemptions from the tax code.

It can all come down to your unique personal circumstances. Consult with a tax professional if you’re on the fence about getting married to make sure you understand all the implications. You might also want some advice to make absolutely sure that your partner qualifies as your dependent in the first place.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Publication 501 (2019), Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information." Accessed May 4, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Table 2: Qualifying Relative Dependents." Accessed May 4, 2020.

  3. IRS. "Dependents." Page 2. Accessed May 4, 2020.

  4. IRS. "Personal Exemptions." Page 1. Accessed May 4, 2020.

  5. IRS. "Child Tax Credit and Credit for Other Dependents at a Glance." Accessed May 5, 2020.

  6. IRS. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2019." Accessed May 4, 2020.

  7. IRS. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2020." Accessed May 4, 2020.

  8. IRS. "Frequently Asked Questions/Filing Status." Accessed May 5, 2020.