Personal exemption (United States)
When calculating a U.S. taxpayer's federal income tax, the personal exemption is a tax deduction composed of amounts for the individual taxpayer, the taxpayer's spouse, and the taxpayer's child, as provided in Internal Revenue Code at 26 U.S.C. § 151. The personal exemption is deducted against the taxpayer's income to arrive at the taxable income - the amount against which the tax rates are applied to compute the total tax liability per 26 U.S.C. § 1.
When Congress enacted Section 151 of the Internal Revenue Code in August 1954, it did so believing that a certain level of income, “personal exemptions”, should not be subject to the federal income tax. Congress reasoned that the level of income insulated from taxation under §151 should roughly correspond to the minimal amount of money someone would need to get by at a subsistence level (i.e., enough money for food, clothes, shelter, etc.). The amount listed in §151 (see below), even adjusted for inflation, may seem inadequate for a taxpayer to subsist on. In addition to personal exemptions, taxpayers may claim other deductions that further reduce the level of income subject to taxation.
Generally speaking, taxpayers may claim a personal exemption for themselves, §151(b), and their qualifying dependents, §151(c). A personal exemption may also be claimed for a spouse if (1) the couple files separately, (2) the spouse has no gross income, and (3) the spouse is not the dependent of another, §151(b). For taxpayers filing a joint return with their spouse, the IRS Regulations allow two personal exemptions as well, §1.151-1(b).
If a taxpayer could be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer (regardless of whether anyone actually claims them), he/she cannot claim a personal exemption for him/herself.
In computing their taxable income, taxpayers may claim all personal exemptions they are eligible for under §151, and deduct that amount from their adjusted gross income (AGI). The size of the personal exemption a taxpayer may take each year is adjusted for inflation.
The tax deduction for personal tax exemptions begins phase out when AGI exceeds $234,600 for 2007 joint tax returns and $156,400 for 2007 single tax returns. Each tax exemption is reduced by 2% for each $2,500 by which one's AGI exceeds the threshold amount until the benefit of all tax exemptions is eliminated (2007) or reduced by one-third (2008 & 2009) on one's tax return. All claimed tax exemptions are phased out to $2,333 for single tax return filers with an AGI of more than $282,450 in 2008 and joint tax return filers with AGI of more than $362,450 in 2008.
For 2009, the personal exemption amount is $3,650 ($3,500 for 2008). The exemption amount for taxpayers with adjusted gross income in excess of the maximum phaseout amount is $2,433 for 2009. For 2009, the personal exemption amount begins to phase out at, and reaches the maximum phaseout amount after, the following adjusted gross income amounts:
|Filing Status||AGI – Beginning of Phaseout||AGI – Maximum Phaseout|
|Married Individuals Filing Joint Returns||$250,200||$372,700|
|Heads of Households||$208,500||$331,000|
|Married Individuals Filing Separately||$125,100||$186,350|
Who is a dependent?
Section 152 of the code contains nuanced requirements that must be met before a taxpayer can claim another as a dependent for personal exemption purposes. The general rule is that a personal exemption may be taken for a dependent that is either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative. § 152(a). However, there are several exceptions to this rule.
Taxpayers who are claimed as dependents of others cannot themselves claim personal exemptions for their qualifying dependents. § 152(b)(1). Married individuals who file joint returns cannot also be claimed as dependents of another taxpayer. § 152(b)(2). Non-U.S.-Citizens or nationals of other countries cannot be claimed as dependents unless they also reside in the U.S. or in contiguous countries. § 152(b)(3). However, taxpayers who are also U.S. citizens or nationals may claim as a dependent any child who shares the taxpayer’s abode and is a member of the taxpayer’s household. Id.
Qualifying children as dependents
Qualifying children must first be “children” in the sense of § 152(f)(1). The term “children” includes adopted children, children placed for adoption, stepchildren, and foster children. Id. Qualifying children must have the same principal place of abode as the taxpayer for more than one-half of the year and must not have provided more than one-half of their own support. § 152(c)(1). They can include a taxpayer’s children, a taxpayer’s siblings, half-siblings, or step siblings, or the descendants of a taxpayer’s children, siblings, half-siblings, or step siblings. §§ 152(c)(2), (f)(4). They may not have reached the age of 19 by the close of the year, unless they are students, in which case they must not have reached the age of 24, or unless they are permanently and totally disabled. § 152(c)(3).
A child cannot qualify as a dependent on more than one tax return, so the code has a set of rules to prevent this from happening. § 152(c)(4). The code first attempts to break the tie by limiting eligible taxpayers to the child’s parents, followed by the contending non-parental taxpayer with the highest adjusted gross income. Id. If more than one parent attempts to claim the child and they do not file a joint return, the code first attempts to break the tie in favor of the parent with whom the child resided longest during the taxable year. Id. If that does not break the tie, the parent with the highest adjusted gross income wins the right to claim the child as a dependent. Id.
For the treatment of children of divorced parents, see § 152(e). For a case in which children are missing and presumed kidnapped, see § 152(f)(6)...
Other qualifying relatives as dependents
A qualifying relative cannot be the qualifying child of any taxpayer. § 152(d)(1). The individual must have gross income less than the amount of the personal exemption. Id. The taxpayer must have provided over one-half of the individual’s support. Id.
The allowable relationships between the taxpayer and the qualifying relative are almost innumerable, but under no circumstances can the relationship be one that violates local law. §§ 152(d)(2), (f)(3). Included are children (in the broad sense of § 152(f)(1)), descendants of children, siblings, half-siblings, step-siblings, father, mother, ancestors of parents, stepparents, nieces, nephews, various in-laws, or any other non-spousal individual sharing the taxpayer’s abode and household. § 152(d)(2).
Special rules dealing with multiple support agreements, handicapped dependents, and child support are detailed at § 152(d)(3)-(5).
The personal exemption amount in 1894 was $4,000 ($80,000 in 2005 dollars). The income tax enacted in 1894 was declared unconstitutional in 1895. The income tax law in its modern form -- which began in the year 1913 -- included a provision for a personal exemption amount of $3,000 ($57,000 in 2005 dollars), or $4,000 for married couples.
Over time the amount of the exemption has increased and decreased depending on political policy and the need for tax revenue. Since the Depression, the exemption has increased steadily, but not enough to keep up with inflation. Despite the intent of the exemption, the amounts are also less than half of the poverty line.
The exemption amounts for years 1987 through 2012 are as shown at right.
The exemption amounts for years 1913 through 2006 are available at http://taxfoundation.org/article/federal-individual-income-tax-exemptions-and-treatment-dividends-1913-2006.
- Years 1987 through 2006, Internal Revenue Service, Instructions for Form 1040 (for each listed year)
- Year 2007, Internal Revenue Service, Rev. Proc. 2006-53 (Nov. 9, 2006).
- Year 1913 and 1894, http://www.answers.com/topic/income-tax, American History section