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Knowing Your Exemptions and Dependents for U.S. Income Tax Purposes 
by kmhagen June 24, 2005

Personal exemptions and exemptions for dependents form a basic part of the U.S. individual income tax law. Knowing the criteria and requirements for claiming these exemptions will facilitate the preparation of your individual income tax return and will ensure that you don’t miss out on this important tax benefit.


Exemptions are fixed amounts, on a per person basis, that reduce the amount of your income that is subject to income tax.  The exemption amounts generally increase year by year and can be found in the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) instructions and publications issued each year, which are available on the IRS website.

There are two types of exemptions:

  • Personal exemptions
  • Exemptions for dependents

These two types of exemptions are for the same amount per person, but different rules apply in order to be able to claim the exemptions.

Personal Exemptions

You can generally claim one exemption for yourself.  And if you are married, you may be able to claim an exemption for your spouse.  These are the personal exemptions.

But if you can be claimed as a dependent by another person, you cannot claim a personal exemption for yourself, even if the other person that qualifies to claim you does not actually claim you as a dependent.  You will need to review the rules for claiming an exemption for dependents to see if you yourself can be claimed as a dependent by someone else.  If it turns out that you cannot claim your own exemption but someone else, such as your parent, can, you may want to let that person know, so that the exemption is not lost.

You can claim an exemption for your spouse only because you are married.  Your spouse is never considered your dependent for tax purposes, and that is why an exemption for your spouse is considered a personal exemption.

If you are married filing jointly, you can claim two exemptions – one for yourself and one for your spouse.  But if you are married filing separately, you can claim the exemption for your spouse only if:

  • your spouse had no income,
  • is not filing a return, and
  • cannot be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, regardless of whether that person actually claims your spouse as a dependent.

If your spouse died during the year and you would have been able to file a joint return, you can still claim an exemption for your deceased spouse, provided you did not remarry before the end of the year.

If you are a surviving spouse with no income and you remarry before the end of the year:

  • You can be claimed as an exemption on the final return of your deceased spouse, if a separate return is filed, and
  • You can also be claimed as an exemption if your new spouse files a separate return.
  • If you file a joint return with your new spouse, you can only be claimed as an exemption on that joint return.

If you obtained a final decree of divorce or separate maintenance during the year, you cannot claim an exemption for your former spouse, even if you provided all your former spouse’s support.



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