Claiming Personal Exemptions on Federal Income Taxes

It might not feel like it at tax time, but the Internal Revenue Service doesn’t actually tax you on every single dollar you earn. The Internal Revenue Code offers numerous deductions you can use to shave away some of your income and the IRS only taxes you on the balance.

Personal exemptions used to be one form of deduction you could use to reduce your taxable income. This in turn lowered the amount of income tax you’d have to pay because you’d be paying taxes on less money. Unfortunately, that’s not the case going forward, at least for a while. 

The Personal Exemption Is Gone in 2018

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated the personal exemption from the tax code when it went into effect in 2018. This will be the case from through the 2025 tax year when the TCJA technically expires. But it’s expiration isn’t necessarily a done deal. Congress has the option of renewing the tax law for another stretch of years at that time. 

But you may still be in luck if you want to go back to amend a 2016 or 2017 tax return. Generally, you have three years from the date of filing to amend a previous year’s tax return.

Here’s how the exemption works. 

Who Is Eligible?

All tax breaks come with a whole list of rules for claiming them and personal exemptions were no exception. A taxpayer was permitted to claim one personal exemption for himself and one exemption for each person he could claim as a dependent.

Married people who file jointly could claim two personal exemptions, one for each spouse, plus exemptions for each of their dependents. If they filed separately, however, one spouse could claim the other spouse’s personal exemption only under limited circumstances.

You could not claim a personal exemption for yourself if you were someone else’s dependent because that taxpayer was already claiming your personal exemption.

How Much Is the Personal Exemption?

The personal exemption amount was indexed for inflation—it increased slightly from year to year to keep pace with the economy, although if the economy remained relatively steady, the personal exemption amount also stayed the same. This happened in tax years 2016 and 2017 when it remained stuck at $4,050 for tax years 2016 and 2017.

Here’s how the exemption worked out in previous years:

Personal Exemptions
Year Amount
2017 $4,050
2016 $4,050
2015 $4,000
2014 $3,950
2013 $3,900
2012 $3,800
2011 $3,700
2010 $3,650
2009 $3,650
2008 $3,500
2007 $3,400
2006 $3,300
2005 $3,200
2004 $3,100
2003 $3,050
2002 $3,000
2001 $2,900
2000 $2,800

The Personal Exemption Amount Is Reduced Based on Income

Personal exemptions were subject to phase-out limits called the personal exemption phaseout or PEP.

Phasing out means that the exemption gradually reduces by 2 percent for each $2,500 or fractional portion of $2,500 by which a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income for the year exceeds a certain threshold. The personal exemption phased out by 2 percent for each $1,250 of adjusted gross income over the threshold for people who used the married filing separately status.

Phaseout Range for Personal Exemptions for 2017 
Filing Status Phaseout Begins Phaseout Ends
Married Filing Jointly $313,800 $436,300
Qualifying Widow(er) 313,800 436,300
Head of Household 287,650 410,150
Single 261,500 384,000
Married Filing Separately 156,900 218,150

Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say Darla had adjusted gross income of $300,000 in 2017. She filed as head of household and claimed two personal exemptions, one for herself and one for her daughter. The relevant threshold for 2017 was $287,650 for head of household filers. Darla’s adjusted gross income of $300,000 exceeded this threshold by $12,350.

We take this excess amount and divide it by $2,500, which comes out to 4.94. We must therefore reduce her personal exemptions by two percent for each $2,500 or fractional part of $2,500, which works out to five reductions of 2 percent: five whole multiples of $2,500 plus one fractional part of $2,500.

Darla therefore had to reduce her personal exemptions by 10 percent: ($4,050 + $4,050) x 10 percent, or $810. So Darla’s two personal exemptions which totaled $8,100 before the reduction were worth only $7,290 after the phase-out limit—$8,100 less $810.

The phase-out limits did not apply in 2010, 2011, or 2012. 

How to Claim Personal Exemptions

Personal exemptions show up in two places on the 2017 tax returns and those for previous years, first on page 1 of Form 1040. Line 6 has a space where you can indicate whether you’re claiming personal exemptions for yourself, your spouse, and/or for your dependents.

Next, the deductible amount of your personal exemptions shows up on the second page on line 42, or on line 26 if you file Form 1040-A. Personal exemptions show up in just one place, on line 5, for taxpayers who file Form 1040-EZ.

Because the personal exemption was eliminated starting in tax year 2018, subsequent versions of Form 1040 do not include a line to enter a personal exemption.

The Exemption’s Effect on the Alternative Minimum Tax

Personal exemptions can only reduce federal income tax. They don’t reduce the alternative minimum tax, sometimes called the AMT. Taxable income for AMT purposes is calculated without regard to personal exemptions.

It’s Not All Bad News

At first glance, it appeared that a lot of taxpayers would be handing over a lot more in tax dollars beginning in 2018. A qualifying family of four was able to subtract $16,200 off their income by claiming personal exemptions in 2017. That same family was able to claim a $12,700 standard deduction in 2017, assuming mom and dad were married and they filed a joint married return.

The TCJA increased that standard deduction to $24,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2018, and it has increased each year since. The standard deduction for married filing jointly rose to $24,800 in 2020, up from $24,400 in 2019. This move was intended to help recapture some of that lost exemption amount.

Tax brackets changed and became slightly more generous under the TCJA as well. The bottom line is that the loss of personal exemptions might be offset by other provisions for at least some taxpayers, but only time will tell. 

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