What Is an Exemption?

An exemption is a deduction allowed by law to reduce the amount of income that would otherwise be taxed. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) previously offered two types of exemptions: personal and dependent exemptions. But with the changes brought about by the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, personal exemptions are disappearing until 2025.  In addition, the standard amount that can be deducted when filing nearly doubles: for couples, the number goes to $24,000 from $12,700; for individuals, it goes to $12,000 in deductions from the previous $6,350.

Key Takeaways

  • An exemption is a lawful reduction of the amount of income that would otherwise be taxed for a qualifying reason.
  • Personal exemptions have been repealed and replaced by higher standard deductions for both couples and individuals.
  • Dependents can be minor children of the taxpayer, but there are other types of dependents, as well.

How an Exemption Works

Personal exemptions have been repealed, while being essentially replaced by higher standard deductions for both couples and individuals. These changes are among several that go into effect following the passing of the new tax law. (For more on the new tax laws and what will change when you file next, read: Trump's Tax Reform).

Personal Exemptions

Personal exemptions were allowed by the IRS through the 2017 filing year, with individual tax filers able to claim $4,050 per taxpayer, spouse and dependent children. For example, previously a taxpayer who had three allowable exemptions could have deducted $12,150 from his taxable income. However, if he earned over a certain threshold, the amount of the exemption he would have been able to claim would have been slowly phased out and eventually eliminated.

Tax filers were only able to claim a personal exemption if they were not claimed as a dependent on someone else's income tax return. This rule set exemptions apart from deductions.

For example, imagine a college student with a job whose parents claimed them as a dependent on their income tax return. Because someone else claimed the person as a dependent, they could not claim the personal exemption, but could still claim the standard deduction. In most cases, tax filers could also claim a personal deduction for their spouses, as long as the spouse was not claimed as a dependent on another person's tax return.

Dependent Exemptions

In many cases, dependents are minor children of the taxpayer, but taxpayers may claim exemptions for other dependents as well. The IRS has a litmus test for determining who is considered a dependent, but in most cases, it is defined as a relative of the taxpayer (parent, child, brother, sister, aunt or uncle) who is dependent on the taxpayer for his support.

The so-called child tax credit now doubles to $2,000 per child under the new law, from $1,000 per dependent previously.

Exemption From Withholding

Employers withhold income tax from their employees and remit it to the IRS. However, if a person has no tax liability, he can request an exemption from withholding. This simply means that his boss withholds Medicare and Social Security contributions from his paycheck, but does not withhold income tax.