Can I claim my spouse as a dependent?

Unfortunately, no.

Derek Silva

Published March 12, 2021|4 min read

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Dear Tax Genius,

If my spouse is a stay-at-home parent and has no income, can I claim my spouse as a dependent on my taxes?

- Pandemic parent

Dear Pandemic parent,

The IRS doesn’t allow a married individual to claim their spouse as a dependent, even if one spouse has no income or if the spouses live apart from each other. As a reminder, the IRS considers you married for tax purposes if you were legally married on or before December 31.

Even though you can’t claim your spouse as a dependent, having only one income probably means your earnings are within the limits to qualify you for certain tax credits or deductions. One big example is the child tax credit (CTC), which is worth up to $2,000 per child as long as you file a joint tax return and your income is $400,000 or less. (The value of the CTC for 2021 will also increase because of the March 2021 coronavirus stimulus bill.) If you or your spouse was looking to get a job at any time during the year, you may also be able to claim the child and dependent care credit, which allows you to deduct the expense required to care for a child while you actively look for work.

Some other tax breaks that may be more valuable with only one spouse having income are the student loan interest deduction and the recovery rebate credit (if you didn’t already get the full value of the coronavirus stimulus checks). You may also be able to save money by itemizing deductions instead of claiming the standard deduction if you had certain expenses this year, like unreimbursed medical expenses.

For more tax breaks you may be able to claim this year, try our list of 53 tax credits and deductions to claim on your 2020 taxes.

As a final note, there are some situations where you could save on taxes by using the married filing separately filing status instead of married filing jointly, but these cases are less common, as I previously discussed in this article on married filing jointly vs separately.

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Who qualifies as a dependent

In general terms, there are two main ways that someone can qualify as your dependent for 2020 taxes.

You can claim someone as a qualifying child if they are your child (or a child of your child), they lived with you for at least half of 2020, you paid at least half the cost of their care, and they were 18 or younger (23 or younger if a student or any age if living with a permanent disability).

Otherwise you can claim a qualifying relative if someone earned less than $4,300 of income (from all sources) in 2020, you paid for at least half the cost of supporting them, and that person is either a relative (by blood, marriage, or law) or a member of your household who lived with you all year. Note that someone may qualify as a “relative” even if they are unrelated but you lived together.

There are some exceptions to the information above so you may want to read our full guide to qualifying dependents, especially if your spouse is a nonresident alien, or if you’re filing a return for tax year 2017 or earlier.

Can I claim my domestic partner as a dependent?

Yes, you can claim your domestic partner or common law partner as a dependent as long as they meet all the requirements to be a dependent, namely that they lived with you all year, made less than $4,300 in 2020, and you paid most of the cost of supporting them. However, the IRS does not consider a domestic partner as a qualifying person for the head of household filing status. And if you happen to get married to your domestic partner on or before December 31, you will no longer qualify to claim them as a dependent since they will have become your spouse for federal taxes.

Also keep in mind that a registered domestic partnership or common law marriage is a legal arrangement at the state level, meaning you may qualify for certain state-level tax benefits that you cannot receive on your federal tax return.

Can I claim my significant other as a dependent?

Yes, you can claim a significant other as a dependent on your income tax return if they meet the same requirements for dependents explained earlier. Again, that means in the simplest terms that your partner lived with you all year, earned income of less than $4,300 for 2020, and you paid more than half the cost of supporting them. You cannot claim the head of household filing status for a partner.

Since the income limit of $4,300 is quite low, most people won’t qualify to claim a partner. For example, someone who made the federal minimum wage of $7.25 and worked 12 hours per week in 2020 would have made about $4,500.

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