IRS Tiebreaker Rules for Claiming Dependents

Who claims a child in joint custody?

A couple sitting at a table working on taxes together
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The parent who has custody for the greater part of the year generally gets to claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes.

Although the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act did away with personal exemptions, at least from 2018 through 2025, having one or more dependents can open the door to numerous other tax breaks, including head of household filing status, the Child Tax Credit, and the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.

Having dependents can also increase your Earned Income Tax Credit if you're eligible. It's definitely worth claiming them if you're entitled to, but the rules can be tricky in the event of a dispute.

One Dependent Per Taxpayer

Unfortunately, only one taxpayer can claim each dependent. You might be divorced, or perhaps you and your child's other parent never married. IRS rules prohibit you from effectively splitting your dependent down the middle. Only one of you can claim your child.

You can reach an agreement as to which of you this will be, but the IRS will apply certain tiebreaker rules otherwise to determine which parent has the right to claim the dependent.

Some parents with multiple children do "divide" them at tax time, perhaps with one parent claiming one child and the other parent claiming the other. This is perfectly acceptable to the IRS. Your children don't have to be a package deal for tax purposes.

A parent always gets to claim the child as a dependent in cases where only that taxpayer is actually the child's parent.

Custody Splits That Aren't 50/50

The first rule the IRS imposes is that the right to claim a dependent goes to the parent with whom the child lived most during the tax year. This is typically the custodial parent.

For example, you would be entitled to claim your children if they spent 300 nights with you during the year, but just 65 nights with your ex. In cases where two parents share physical custody but the child resides with one parent more than 50% of the time, the parent with the greater percentage of parenting time is awarded the right to claim the child.

Of course, an exact 50/50 split is almost impossible except for in leap years because there are an odd number of days in each year. Even in perfectly-scheduled shared custody arrangements, one parent is likely to have the children for at least one more night than the other. The IRS would give the right to claim them to that parent.

The Income Tiebreaker Rule

The parent with the higher adjusted gross income (AGI) claims the child as a dependent in cases where the child lived with each parent exactly equally. This might be the case if the child lived with a grandparent or other relative for some period of time during the year, and the parents evenly divided the remaining time.

Likewise, the caregiver with the greater AGI becomes eligible to claim the child as a dependent when neither taxpayer is the parent. But this rule only applies when no parent can claim the child.

Parental Disagreements

It can happen that a parent who doesn't have the right to claim a child does so anyway. It's best to seek the advice of a tax professional or attorney in this case.

First, make sure that you're eligible to claim your child. Then go ahead and file your taxes, doing so. But be prepared to defend yourself in an audit.

The Internal Revenue Service will audit one or both taxpayers when it receives more than one tax return claiming the same dependent. All received tax returns are screened through an IRS computer to check for this and other red flags. The IRS will investigate the facts of the situation and award the dependent according to the tiebreaker rules.

A Qualifying Parent Can Waive the Right

Parents who are eligible to claim a dependent can opt to allow the other parent to do so instead by completing Form 8332, Release/Revocation of Release of Claim to Exemption for Child by Custodial Parent. The parent claiming the child would then submit this signed form with their tax return.