Can Your Spouse be a Dependent on Your Taxes?

It's a common scenario: One person in a relationship brings home a much higher salary than the other. For couples in this situation, the higher earner typically handles the majority of the expenses.

To lower their tax burden, some may want to claim their lower-earning spouse as a dependent. In other situations, the earner's spouse is disabled and unable to contribute to the family's income. However, while you might think that labeling a spouse as a dependent is a smart decision, it's actually not allowed by the IRS.

What the IRS Says About Dependent Spouses

According to the IRS Publication 17, your spouse can never be claimed as a dependent. Other people, such as siblings, children, or other relatives can be dependents, but no matter the circumstance, your spouse cannot.

In the IRS' eyes, a dependent is defined as a child or qualifying relative. The person does not have to be related by blood — they just had to live with you for the year and not have gross income.

Spousal Exemptions

While a spouse cannot be a dependent, you may be able to claim an exemption for your spouse, thereby lowering your tax burden. You can go this route if you are married, and your partner has no gross income to report.

If your spouse is physically challenged, you may be able to claim credit for expenses related to the care of your spouse. This option would be a possibility if you needed to hire help to care for your spouse so you could go to work or search for employment.

Marriage and Taxes

To minimize how much you owe on your taxes, it often makes the most sense to file jointly, rather than separately. To encourage couples to file together, the IRS gives joint filers some of the largest standard deductions, allowing them to deduct a big amount from their taxable income.

Joint filers can typically claim two exemptions and more easily qualify for other tax credits, including:

  • Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit
  • American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Education Credit

If you file jointly, there is also a higher threshold for taxes and deductions, meaning you can qualify for more credit and tax breaks for a higher income than if you filed separately.

When It Makes Sense to File Separately

Filing separately only makes sense in very specific circumstances, such as in the case of large out-of-pocket medical expenses. Because the IRS only allows you to deduct 10% of your adjusted gross income (AGI), filing separately can help you save more money.

While you may hear some professionals recommend claiming your spouse as a dependent, it is not permissible by the IRS. Instead, you can claim your partner as a personal exemption in particular circumstances. To lower your tax burden, consult with a tax professional to make sure filing jointly makes the most financial sense for your situation and get all of the deductions and tax breaks you are entitled to.

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