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This question comes up now and then: My spouse is disabled and has no income; can we file as married filing separately and I claim him/her as a dependent on my tax return?

The answer to this question is yes. See IRS Publication 501, page 11.

Let’s look at some of the mechanics. If a married couple files separate tax returns, one spouse can claim the other as a dependent if the spouse being claimed as a dependent:

  1. Has no gross income, and
  2. Isn’t filing a tax return, and
  3. Isn’t a dependent of any other taxpayer

From IRS Publication 501. Link here: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p501.pdf

But again, the real question is, why would anyone want to file this way instead of just filing jointly?

Possible Reasons to File Separately

Off the top of my head, I can think of two scenarios where a couple in this situation might want to file separately:

  • In situations where the disabled spouse has a benefit that is based on household income, I suppose. By being shown as a dependent rather than a primary taxpayer, I suppose, perhaps, that it would make sense to file this way. I don’t know enough about how things such as disability benefits are calculated to know whether this is the case or not. Thus the reason for my purposeful use fo vague, non-committal language.
  • Student loans, with income-based repayment, could be another situation where filing separately might be useful. If the disabled spouse has student loans on IBR and a joint return is filed,  I believe the required payment would be calculated based on the income of both spouses.

In both of those scenarios, you’d really need to contact the benefits administrator (SSA, the student loan lender, etc.) to find out how the benefit or repayment amount is calculated.

I’m interested to hear thoughts from readers on this, as to why a couple in this circumstance would want to file separately. It seems like it comes up multiple times a year, and at first the cynic in me thought it was just people over-thinking things. But if it would help with benefit calculations or student loan repayment, I could see the merits of filing this way.

“This blog post, along with comments that may follow, should not be considered tax advice. Before you make final tax or financial decisions, please secure a professional tax advisor to give you advice about your unique situation. To secure Jason as your accountant, please click on the ‘Services’ link at the top of the page.”