More Questions about Claiming Dependents

Who Can You Claim as a Dependent?

Parents with newborn in hospital
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Today I'll answer nine questions, all focusing pretty much on the same issue: Who can I claim as my dependent? Can I claim my girlfriend? My elderly mother? The rules are a bit intricate. 

The Basics 

  • The old support test is out. A lot of you have memorized the rule that you must provide more than half of your dependent's total support for the year, but you have to permanently remove this idea from your memory. It no longer applies, at least not by itself and not for child dependents. 
  • There are two buzz words: qualifying child and qualifying relative. The rules for each are different. 
  • If someone can claim a child under the definition of a qualifying child, no one else can claim that same child under the definition of a qualifying relative.
  • For qualifying relatives, the relationship between yourself and the dependent can be important. Some relationships have mandatory residency requirements -- they must actually live with you. Others do not.

If you need help determining whether you can or should claim a child as a dependent, please have every person who could possibly claim him sit down and discuss the issue rationally before anyone files their tax returns. Anything less will result in unnecessary hassles. 

The Questions: 

S. Overman asks: "Would it be better to claim a dependent throughout the year instead of waiting to claim him on your tax return? I realize that my tax refund would not be as much if I claimed throughout the year, but I would like to know how much difference I could expect both ways."

This is related to withholding from your paycheck. You should claim a level of withholding allowances appropriate to your tax situation. As a general rule of thumb, claim the same number of withholding allowances as you intend to claim personal exemptions on your tax return. 

J. Varela asks: "I have a daughter with my ex-girlfriend and we have joint custody. I pay child support and provide insurance for her. My question is, my ex does not work and usually never has. Is she allowed to have someone else claim my daughter such as her grandmother? This has been going on for years and I am just curious."  

I cannot determine what your ex-girlfriend's tax situation is, but here's one of the general rules: To claim a child as a dependent, the child must live with you for more than half the year. If your daughter does not live with you, you would not be able to claim her as a dependent. Therefore, who else would be eligible to claim your daughter is irrelevant to your personal tax situation. As long as the child meets the tests for qualifying child, she can be claimed as a dependent.

J. Shaylor asks: "Can you take a tax credit for your child if they worked a portion of the year?"

If the child meets the definition of a qualifying child, then yes, you can still claim your child as a dependent and this will help qualify you for various child-related tax credits. One of the new criteria for a qualifying child is that the child cannot provide more than half his own financial support. This new support test is no longer related to the age test as it was under the old rules.

Misty McCumbers asks: "How much do I get for my 9-month-old son who was born on April 15?"  

You can claim your son as a dependent as long as he meets the criteria for a qualifying child. It does not matter when in the year he was born -- even Dec.

31. You still get the full personal exemption.

M. Boutte asks: "My girlfriend was married the first five months of the year but has since divorced. She has two dependent children under 17 who live with her full time. Her ex-husband has agreed not to claim either of the kids on his return. Consequently, I'm wondering if my girlfriend can file as head of household. If not, what would be her best status option?" 

As long as each child meets the criteria for qualifying children, your girlfriend can claim her children as dependents. Generally, that means the children lived with her for more than six months of the year and did not provide more than half their own financial support. As an unmarried person for the last half of the year with at least one dependent, your girlfriend would be eligible to file as head of household if she paid more than half the costs for her home during the tax year.


J. Finders asks: "What are the rules for claiming a child when the child lives with both parents for six months each?"

Great question! You can claim a dependent if, among other things, the child lives with you MORE than half the year. So if the children are living with you for EXACTLY half a year, you might be losing out. But not to fear, the IRS has a tiebreaker test for this situation. If the children spend an equal amount of time with both parents, the parent with the highest adjusted gross income gets to claim them as dependents.

J. Robert asks: "I support a child more than 50 percent. Her mother wants me claim her this year. My question is: What title can I put on? Child or other?"  

Please unlearn the old "more than 50 percent" rule. It no longer applies. The child must live with you for more than half the year, and the child cannot provide more than half her own support. Also, you must be related to the child one of several ways.

These rules apply only for qualifying children, such as dependents who are your children or grandchildren. It sounds like this child isn't your biological, foster or adopted child, so you would have to follow the rules for a qualifying relative. There's a residency requirement for some qualifying relatives -- they must live with you. It sounds like this particular child is not related to you except informally, so the child would have to have lived with you for the entire calendar year.

Now here's the kicker. This particular child would be the qualifying child of her parent. And "once a qualifying child, always a qualifying child, and never a qualifying relative," according to H&R Block tax expert Kathy Burlison. This means you generally cannot claim the child as your dependent because the child likely meets the criteria to be someone else's qualifying child.

J. Robert asks a follow-up question: "Can someone unmarried claim a child as head of household? What relation can I get if I want to claim my sister's child?"

A niece might qualify as a "qualifying child" because she is a descendant of your sister. You would meet the relationship test for a qualifying child. But you have to look at the other three criteria as well. Your niece must live with you for more than half the year, must not provide more than half her own support, and must be under age 19 or age 24 if she's a full-time student. So did your niece live with you or with her mom? If she lived with you both equally, only her mom would be able to claim her as a dependent using the tiebreaker tests

If you qualify to claim your niece, the relationship you indicate on Form 1040 is "Niece." If a taxpayer is unmarried and has at least one dependent, the taxpayer could qualify for the head of household filing status if she paid for more than half the costs of maintaining her home. 

K. Goyne asks: "If you have a parent living with you all year and he receives Social Security benefits but doesn't work, can you claim him as a dependent on your taxes?"

Parents fall into the category of "qualifying relatives." You can claim your parent as a dependent if he earns less than $4,050 in taxable income as of 2016 -- he must earn less than the amount of that year's dependent exemption. You must provide more than half his total financial support. If his only source of income is Social Security, none if his benefits count as taxable income. So if you provided more than half his financial support, then yes, you can claim him as a dependent. He doesn't actually have to live with you either because there is no residency requirement for parents.

NOTE: Tax laws can change frequently and the above information may not reflect the most recent changes. Please consult with a tax professional for the most up-to-date advice.