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When Can I List My Spouse As a Dependent?


The federal income tax law is very clear in that taxpayers shouldn’t list a spouse as a dependent on their tax returns. Despite not being able to claim dependent exemptions for spouses, there are other ways that your spouse, or being married, may help you claim other tax benefits that can save you just as much as a dependent exemption, if not more.

Spouse As Dependent

To claim dependents on your tax return, you need to first satisfy the qualifying child or qualifying relative test. Both categories of dependents can include any U.S. resident or citizen, provided they don’t file a joint return for any reason other than to claim a tax refund. However, under both tests, it’s impossible for your own spouse to satisfy the requirements. In case you mistakenly report your spouse as a dependent, the IRS will likely catch the mistake since the first page of your tax return reports the relationship you have to each dependent.

Joint Filer Exemptions

If you’re legally married by the last day of the year, you will be eligible to file a joint tax return with your husband or wife. The IRS allows you to take two personal exemptions on all joint returns – one for yourself and the other for your spouse. In 2012, for example, the federal government fixes each exemption at $3,800, so you aren’t losing any tax refund by filing a joint return – it’s exactly the same as if you took an additional dependent exemption.

Married Tax Brackets

The biggest tax-savings for married couples filing a joint return is lower rates of tax on larger portions of your joint income. In a recent tax year, for example, the IRS taxed a single filer’s income at the rate of 10 percent on the first $8,500 of taxable income, and 15 percent on amounts over $8,500 up to $34,500. In comparison, joint filers enjoy a 10-percent tax rate on income up to $17,000 before the 15-percent bracket applies. If you and your spouse earn about the same, the joint tax brackets may not save you more in tax. However, when one spouse is the main earner, the tax savings is substantial in comparison to filing separate returns.

Home Gain Exclusion

Another benefit the IRS offers joint filers is an increase in the capital gain exclusion from $250,000 to $500,000 when you sell your home. To qualify, both spouses must live in the home as their principal residence for at least two years of the five-year period ending on the date of sale. However, only one spouse needs to be the actual homeowner for two of those five years.

Reference: IRS Publication 501-Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information