What if Someone Else Claimed Your Child as a Dependent?

The IRS has special tiebreaker rules

What to know about the IRS' tiebreaker rules Dependency exemption almost always goes to the parent who is given legal custody of the child by court order Assuming the child did somehow manage to spend exactly the same amount of time in each parent's home during the tax year, dependency exemption goes to the parent with the highest adjusted gross income If granted dependency exemption, file a tax return listing the correct dependents To prep for the subsequent audit, gather any records indicating that your child lived with you and when, like school and medical records

Julie Bang / The Balance 2020

It seems pretty simple, at least on the surface. You have a child, and they live with you at least some of the time, so they're your dependent at tax time, right? Not exactly, and you certainly wouldn't be the first parent, or the last, to claim your child as your dependent, only to find out that your ex has already done so.

It happens often enough that the Internal Revenue Service has special "tiebreaker" rules to help you determine which of you actually has a right to the dependency exemption.

The Tiebreaker Rules 

The IRS indicates that the parent who can claim a child is the one who meets the following criteria:

First, the claim goes to the parent with whom the child lived more during the tax year. The IRS year defines this by "overnights"—nights where they went to bed in one parent's home or the other. This generally means that the dependency exemption goes to the custodial parent—the one who has legal custody of the child by court order.

Assuming the child did spend exactly the same amount of time in each parent's home during the tax year—or maybe the parents live together but can't or don't file a joint married return—the tiebreaker rules give the dependency exemption to the parent with the higher adjusted gross income.

If someone other than a parent is trying to claim your child, they're out of luck. A parent always has the first right to claim their child as a dependent if they're able to do so. The IRS gives a detailed explanation of circumstances under which neither parent might be able to claim their child in Publication 504. It's rare, but it does occasionally happen.

Does Claiming Your Child Affect Your Tax Situation?

Claiming your child as a dependent can save you some tax dollars if you meet the requirements.

The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated personal exemptions from the tax code—the exemptions you could claim for yourself and each of your dependents—for tax years 2018 through 2025. But claiming a dependent can qualify you for several advantageous tax credits and tax deductions, and it can affect your filing status, which can create other tax reductions.

Most TCJA tax provisions expire in 2025. Congress may or may not reinstate personal exemptions at that time.

It will trigger an IRS audit using the tiebreaker rules to determine who gets to claim the child if both you and your ex file returns claiming them and neither of you is willing to amend your return to reverse the claim.

You Can Relinquish Your Claim

A custodial parent can give the noncustodial parent the right to claim their child by signing Form 8332. Your ex can submit it with their tax return. You should sign this form for every year you plan to relinquish the exemption claim. You might want to do this if it provides them with a tax break but has no effect on your tax situation, particularly while personal exemptions are repealed.

You can always resubmit the form to revoke the release if you change your mind.

Who Else Might Have Claimed Your Child?

The IRS can't tell you who claimed your dependent, because it's prohibited by Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code. The agency can't disclose information relating to a tax return to anyone other than the filer. That said, you probably have a good idea of who, if anyone, claimed your child. The culprit would have to know the child's name, their Social Security number, and their date of birth.

But it isn't always the child's other parent who claims them. Maybe your ex and your child are living with another relative, who thinks they're entitled. Identify theft is a problem as well—someone might have stolen your child's Social Security number and might be using it to steal money from the U.S. Treasury.

What To Do?

Print out your tax return listing the correct dependents, and file the return with the IRS if your child has been claimed by someone else. You'll have to mail the return for manual processing, because IRS computers are programmed to automatically reject e-filed returns that include a dependent who has already been claimed on another tax return.

Attempting to file electronically will only cause an unnecessary and additional delay in straightening the situation out.

The next step is to prepare yourself for an audit over the dependent if the individual who claimed your child won't file an amended return revoking the claim. The IRS will audit both your tax return and that of the other person. They'll ask questions and seek documentation based on the eligibility criteria and the tiebreaker tests.

Gather any and all records indicating that your child lived with you and when. Ideally, you have a custody order or agreement detailing exactly when your child resides in your residence. School and medical records can also be helpful, as can any kind of journal, diary, or calendar that cites the days your child lived with you.

Having these records will go a long way toward winning the audit and protecting your tax refund.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who can claim a dependent child on their taxes?

In order to claim a dependent child, no one else may be able to claim you as a dependent on their taxes. Your dependent must also be a U.S. citizen, resident alien, national, or a resident of Canada or Mexico. In most cases, they must also:

  • Be your child, legal descendent, sibling, or a legal descendent of your sibling
  • Be younger than you and under age 19 at the end of the year (or under 24 if a full-time student) or permanently and totally disabled
  • Have lived with you for more than half the year
  • Have not provided more than half of their support during the year

How do you claim a dependent on your taxes?

To claim a dependent, you'll need to provide their name, relationship to you, date of birth, and Social Security number on Form 1040 when you file your taxes.