Can Two Taxpayers Claim the Same Dependent?

Split the tax benefits of child dependents between two parents

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Only one person can claim a dependent on their tax return, but this doesn't mean that parents can't both claim certain tax breaks that are associated with their child dependent—the custodial parent just has to agree to the arrangement.

Deciding the Custodial Parent

The IRS defines a custodial parent as the parent the child lives with for the greater number of nights during the year. The custodial parent is determined using the tie-breaker tests for qualifying children if the child lives with both parents an equal amount of time. The IRS will award the dependent to the parent with the highest adjusted gross income (AGI) when this is the case.

Tax Breaks for Custodial Parents

Only the custodial parent is generally eligible to claim certain tax breaks, including the following:

The custodial parent used to be able to claim a personal exemption for the child as well, but these exemptions were eliminated from the tax code in 2018 under the terms of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).

This doesn't necessarily mean that personal exemptions are gone forever, but they most likely won't return until the TCJA potentially expires at the end of 2025. Congress must take steps to renew the law at that time, or the terms of the TCJA will no longer be in effect.

Waving Custodial Parent Rights

The custodial parent can waive their right to claim their child as a dependent, effectively giving the dependent to the non-custodial parent. The non-custodial parent would then be able to claim the child tax credit, the tuition and fees deduction, and either of the education tax credits.

The custodial parent would still be eligible to claim some child-related tax benefits even if they release their claim to the dependent. These include head of household filing status, child and dependent care credit, earned income credit, and exclusion for dependent care benefits.

How to Split Child Tax Benefits

You must meet four criteria before you can "split" your child and divide tax benefits between parents. These include:

  • The parents must be divorced, legally separated, or have lived apart at all times during the last six months of the year.
  • The parents must have provided more than half the dependent child's total financial support, and the child must be in the custody of one or both parents during the year.
  • The child cannot have lived with anyone other than a parent for more than six months of the tax year.
  • The custodial parent must officially waive their right by signing IRS Form 8332.

Form 8332

The custodial parent can waive their right to claim the dependent by submitting Form 8332 to the IRS. They might submit one of a handful of other documents as well, but custodial parents are strongly advised to use Form 8332. Other documents, such as divorce decrees, separation agreements, and child custody agreements, don't always provide the same level of detail as Form 8332.

The noncustodial parent should attach the signed Form 8332 to their tax return. The custodial parent should keep copies of the form as well.

Waivers are not necessarily permanent. Part I of Form 8332 only releases a parent's claim to the child for the current tax year. Part II releases the right in future tax years, and you can pinpoint these years. Finally, a parent can resubmit Form 8332, completing Part III to revoke a release that they already granted if they change their mind. Noncustodial parents should carefully review whether they can claim a dependent yearly. 

Tax Benefits for Higher Education

Only the parent claiming the child as a dependent would be eligible to claim the tax benefits for college and other post-secondary education. These tax breaks include:

These tax deductions and credits are not available for people whose filing status is married filing separately, and they're subject to income phase-out limitations. If neither of the parents can claim these tax breaks, they might want to forgo claiming the child as a dependent, allowing the child to claim these tax breaks themselves.

Audit Potential

Two taxpayers should not attempt to claim the same dependent without filing Form 8332. This will almost certainly trigger an IRS audit of both tax returns. The IRS is aggressive in denying dependents and other child-related tax breaks when this form is missing.

This sharing of child-related tax benefits is available only to taxpayers who are the child's parents. Splitting the dependent's tax benefits with other family members isn't possible.

Article Sources

  1. IRS. "Qualifying Child of More Than One Person." Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  2. IRS. "Publication 501 (2019)," Page 13. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  3. IRS. "Tax Reform Basics for Individuals and Families," Page 9. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  4. IRS. "Claim to Exemption for Child by Custodial Parent." Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  5. IRS. "Divorced or Separated Individuals," Pages 9–10. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  6. IRS. "Divorced or Separated Individuals," Page 11. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  7. IRS. "Form 8332," Page 1. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  8. IRS. "Publication 501 (2019)," Page 14. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  9. IRS. "Instructions for Form 8863," Page 2. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  10. IRS. "Publication 504 (2019)," Page 6. Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.

  11. IRS. "Understanding Your CP87C Notice." Accessed Oct. 27, 2020.