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Claiming Qualifying Dependents on Taxes – IRS Tax Dependent Definition & Rules

By Kira Botkin

family children tax dependentsAs any parent knows, dependents are a great way to get tax deductions. Everyone in the U.S. is eligible to receive a “personal exemption” of $3,900 on their taxes. However, if they don’t support themselves (such as children), their personal exemption can be transferred to the person who does support them (such as their parents), by claiming them as dependents.

If you have people in your household that you support, each one may be considered a dependent and can reduce your taxable income by $3,900. However, there are specific rules that must be met in order for this to occur.

Who Qualifies as a Dependent For Tax Purposes?

1. You can’t be someone’s dependent and claim dependents of your own.
Yes, this sounds a bit circular, but if you are claimed as someone else’s dependent, you can’t claim your own dependents. For example, if Sarah and her son move back in with her mother due to a job loss, and Sarah doesn’t have an means to support herself, her mother might qualify to take Sarah as a dependent. However, Sarah cannot then list her son as her dependent – he might actually be the dependent of his grandmother, if she provides his support.

2. The dependent must be a citizen of the United States, or a resident of the United States, Canada, or Mexico.
Even if a potential dependent is your relative, he or she must meet one of these criteria in order to qualify for a personal tax exemption. While this one seems fairly cut and dry, there are some situations where questions arise. For instance, if you’re adopting a child from a different country, and the child is not yet a U.S. citizen, the child may still be considered a dependent if he or she lived with you as a household resident for the whole year.

If you have other questions regarding resident status, Publication 501 has details on determining the proper exemption.

3. The dependent can be married, but can’t file as “married filing jointly” with his or her spouse.
As an example, if Sarah were married when she moved in with her mother, she and her husband must file separately in order for Sarah’s mother to claim her as a dependent.

Claiming Children as Dependents

Most of the time when people take dependents on their tax return, it’s their children they claim. There are five specific criteria that must be met to take a child as a dependent:

  • Residency. The dependent must live with you for at least six months out of the year. For divorced parents or for parents serving in the military, this requirement can seem confusing. Generally the custodial parent in a divorced household is the one who can claim the child as a dependent. For any situation in which you or your child did not live together for more than six months due to business, military service, long-term illness, educational requirements, or vacation, you may still be able to claim the child as a dependent. For more details on when, and how, to determine residency, refer to Publication 501.
  • Relationship. To qualify as a child, the person must be your son, daughter, brother, sister, adopted child, eligible foster child, or a descendant of any of those (such as grandchildren, nieces, and nephews). Step-siblings, step-children, and half-siblings also meet this qualification. Brothers and sisters can also qualify.
  • Age. A child must be under age 19 at the end of the year, unless he or she is under age 24 and a full time student. However, any child who is permanently and totally disabled can be claimed as a dependent, regardless of age.
  • Support. The child can’t provide more than half of the money for his or her own support. For example, a young actress might earn more money than her parents, and thus essentially support herself. Another instance would be a child whose care is paid for by a trust fund or other source of money. Neither of these individuals would be eligible to be taken as a dependent.
  • Joint Return. If your child files a joint return with his or her spouse, he or she is not an eligible dependent – with one exception. The exception is if your child and his or her spouse file a joint return for the explicit purpose of having withheld taxes returned. For instance, if they only made $1,000 for the year from part time jobs, and those jobs withheld taxes, they could file for the purpose of having those taxes returned and still be eligible dependents on your tax return.

Claiming Other Relatives or Roommates as Dependents

Other than children, who can you take as a dependent?

The requirements for this are somewhat stricter. Generally, you can take someone as a dependent if they didn’t earn more than $3,900 all year and you provided more than 50% of their support. Relatives whom you are supporting do not have live with you (e.g if you are paying for your grandmother to live in her own apartment.)

However, you can also claim a person who is unrelated to you as a dependent if that person lived with you for the entire year, earned less than $3,900, and you provided more than half of his or her support.

What Does Support Mean?

The IRS defines support generally as items provided on behalf of an individual. This includes food, lodging, and other necessities like clothing, transportation, day care costs, medical expenses, education expenses, and even luxuries for personal enjoyment (such as video games or haircuts). You must count the fair rental value of any housing you provide, instead of using the mortgage or rent you actually paid.

Each person can only be taken as a dependent by one person or couple filing jointly. The most common situation where this becomes an issue is for divorced couples who share custody of a child. Generally the parent with whom the child lived the most during the year (the custodial parent) is able to claim the child as a dependent. But he or she has the right to waive that option and allow the other parent to claim the exemption instead. Someone might choose this because the custodial parent’s income is lower or because it’s part of a divorce decree. The custodial parent can use Form 8332 to sign over the right to take the exemption to the non-custodial parent, or attach the part of the divorce agreement that deals with this issue in lieu of completing the form. These rules still apply to stepchildren, even after a divorce.

What’s important to note is that if one parent or one individual claims a person as a qualifying child, no other parent or individual may claim that same person as either a qualifying child or a qualifying relative.

Final Word

Taking advantage of the dependents tax break can be extremely beneficial financially, as long as you understand and meet the requirements set forth by the IRS. Be sure to check if you’re eligible to take the child and dependent care credit, the child tax credit, and the earned income credit as well.

Do you claim any dependents?  How much of an impact have they had on your tax return or tax bill?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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  • Richard

    We supported our full time 22 year old dependant daughter in 2010 through August (college graduation). She then married, and lived with new husband and got her own job too for reminder (4 months) of the 2010. They are doing well. Can’t I still claim her for 2010 as she was dependant on us completely for nearly eight months of 2010 before marrying, moving, and making good money on her new job?

    • Kira Botkin

      Your status at the end of the year is your status for the whole year. So if she was married on December 31st, she was considered married for 2010. The rules for taking a married person as a dependent are much stricter than taking a child. Plus, she wouldn’t have been a full time student the whole year, and if she makes good money at her new job she probably is making too much to be claimed as anyone’s dependent.

  • Kira

    The first thing that comes to mind is whether she and her husband filed as married filing jointly. Anyone who files as married filing jointly can no longer be taken as a dependent. If they are filing as married filing separately, you may qualify to take her as a dependent. Another potential issue is whether you provided more than 50% of her support because that is qualified as money spent, not the amount of time you spent supporting her. I would bet that her current standard of living as a working adult is rather higher than living in a dorm or in her parents’ home, and so she may have spent more on her own living expenses in four months than you did in eight. If she had a job in college, any amount she spent on her own care while you were supporting her also counts against what you spent on her.

    But before you do anything, you need to talk to your daughter to coordinate this, because claiming her as a dependent will increase your refund but significantly decrease the refund that your daughter and son in law will get. There is no situation in which both you and your daughter will come out with higher refunds.

    • joeygiganto

      if the wife salary is above minimum and his husband is below can wife carry their child to lessen her tax?

  • Heatherearhart

    Hi I am 20 years old and a full-time student but in the tax year of 2011, I did not live with my parents for even a week, they might of bought me food one time, but did pay my car insurance for 4 months, but that is the only thing they payed for. I make more money then they do, but they Claimed me on their taxes. They now are refusing to give me their income information for my FAFSA to get government help to go to school. I do not have a good relationship and am not happy they are getting money back for “supporting” me when they don’t. My question is, Is this legal? Can they do this? If not who should I contact to take care of this?
    HELP PLEASE!
    Thank you!!

    • Kira Botkin

      You should contact your school’s financial aid department to find out what to do to get yourself emancipated, since your parents are unwilling to fill out the FAFSA. As far as your taxes, no, they should not be taking you as a dependent because it sounds like you don’t qualify as their dependent under IRS rules as you didn’t live with them and you provided more than half of your own support.

  • guest

    Hi I am 24 years old and single mom of 3 kids and only get survivors checks for my kids on their dad that passed away. So I can not claim taxes cause I didnt have a job. My Step Uncle helped me out with gas, food, clothes and other things that my kids and I needed. He he able to claim us as dependents on his taxes??

    • Kira Botkin

      It depends on how much the survivors’ checks were for – more than $3,650 per kid and he will not be able to take them. But if you don’t have a job or any income, he can probably claim you.

  • guest

    hi I moved my great aunt to nyc from las vegas to live with me in april of 2011 because of health reasons. Before that she lived with a cousin from oct 2010 to april 2011 in vegas. My great aunt is 88 years old and lives on her social security. I just found out that someone claimed her on their taxes already for 2011 without our knowledge and we suspect it is the cousin in las vegas. Is this legal and can we file a complaint with the IRS.

    • Kira Botkin

      Well, the greater issue is that unless her Social Security checks are $305 a month or less, neither of you can claim her, because she made more than $3,650 during the year.

      • guest

        Thanks for responding and yes her SS checks are more than $305 per month. She was also definately used as a dependent also. Should or Can the IRS be notified?

      • Lisa101

        Kira social security is not earned income and you do not have to file taxes on it only if you make $25,000 or more a year. Social security does not fall under the $3,650 you are stating, which now 2013 is $3,900.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7VJSCPNR2ZZSJ4RZMF6JUUS72U Granger

    Hi – …my adult (25+) yr old son has lived with me throughout 2012; unemployed. I have provided full support. He’s potentially going to be employed mid-late November. My question is this: I’d like to recoup some of this cost of support. If my son works 1.5 – 2 months, he’d have to agree to be a dependent on my return, forfeiting his own, correct? Not sure how this works….any advice or reference would be helpful

  • Richard Soosia

    Dear Kira, Gross income does not include Social Security payments or other tax-exempt income.

  • Concern parent

    I have a question, I support both my mother and toddler son financial. My mom takes care of my son as I work and attend school. I claim boy mother,and son on my taxes.,However I only get the child tax credit. My mother wants to sue me for claiming her, because she’s under the impression I get money for her; when I don’ t can she do this?

    • Kira Botkin

      If you do claim her as a dependent, an extra $3,800 (for 2012 taxes) of your income is now tax free. So you are getting some money from claiming her, indirectly. But if your mother makes little to no money, she really has no incentive to not be your dependent because she isn’t going to pay any taxes anyway, and so somebody should get the benefit. But if she earned more than $3,800 this year, that’s the point at which you can no longer claim an adult relative as a dependent.

  • Mindy

    I have an important ??

    • Kira Botkin

      Which is.. ?

  • jeff

    My wife ( who’s only worked for about 4 months during the last year) said she can sue me if I claim both of our children. she sfeel that I m not entitled to ANY refund of any kind since I’ve worked all year and claimed 3 depemdents for with-holding.
    Is she right, or just crazy like everyone tells me?

    • Kira Botkin

      Well, there is really no suing that can go on here, nor does whether you get a refund or not have anything to do with anything. Whether you get a refund or not is only based on the taxes you owe and the taxes you paid, not whether you have dependents.

      Are you actually still married to this woman, and if so are you filing jointly or separately? If you do not live together, who actually has custody of the children?

  • Tara

    My grandchildren live with me (9 and 11yrs) and they receive social security benefits because their parents are deceased. Can I claim them as dependants or not? They each receive $900.00 a month from social security.

    • Kira Botkin

      In order to claim them you need to have provided more than half of their support. So if you spend more than $900 of your own money per child per month, you could claim them. (That would be $900 of your money ON TOP of spending their SS checks, on food, clothes, etc.) That seems like a lot of money though.

      You do get to include some for housing and utilities, but only the proportion that is reasonably attributable to the children, not the whole amount you spend on housing and utilities.

  • curiousinal

    Can a mother who has not had her children with her for over a year still claim them as dependents? They have been living with their grandparents since before Christmas 2011. Also, my son gets them most weekends (he is not biological father, altho the baby has his last name.) The children’s mother told my son last year he could claim the baby (he claimed all when they were together because she didn’t work) and then she claimed her also which caused a kickback from IRS. What is the grandparents and his rights ? Can she legally claim them if she hasn’t even seen them?

    • Kira Botkin

      The only thing that matters is who is financially supporting the children. If the grandparents are the ones paying for their food, clothes, shelter, and what not, they are the ones who can claim them. If your son is paying the grandparents to take care of them, he could have a case, but if he is just watching them on the weekend, that’s not enough. If the mother does not pay any support towards the children’s needs, she does not get to decide who takes them as dependents. If she has already filed, you should contact the IRS. The grandparents should file their taxes as soon as possible if they can take the children as dependents.

  • guest

    My father went to court to have me legally emancipated effective January 1, 2012. When I tried to file my taxes they were rejected because he claimed me as a dependent. I was 20 years old in 2012, still live with my mother (not my father) and I made over $17,000.00 in 2012. Can he do that? What can I/should I do?

    • Kira Botkin

      No, he can’t. You should call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 or go to a Taxpayer Assistance Center for help. You probably made too much money to be anybody’s dependent, and you didn’t live with him, so he can’t claim you. Can you talk to him and ask him to amend his taxes?

  • Mathews

    I moved to US in March 2012. But my wife and kids are in India. I support them from the income I receive in US. I am on a H1 visa. Can I claim my wife and kids as dependents

    • Kira Botkin

      Since the children don’t live with you, you couldn’t claim them. You might be able to claim your wife, but I’m honestly not sure how you would go about filing as married unless your wife has a federal tax ID number. You should call the IRS on this question to find some answers.

  • judith.straight

    hi, My son turned 19 in Jan. 2013. He lives with me and I pay for over half of his expenses. He filed his own return and claimed himself. Can I still claim him this year?

    • Kira Botkin

      You are legally allowed to, but the return will be rejected because he already filed. Talk to him and ask him to file an amended return.

      • dgpam

        from what i’m reading on the IRS site,,her son doesn’t have to file an amended return,,she can, and the IRS will contact him to make arrangements for an overpayment, say-lavie

  • Cerebral palsy girl

    I moved out of my parents’ home to another state in 2009. Can they still claim me on their tax forms because I am handicap? Is it wrong. What do I need to do to correct this matter? I have not live with them for 6 months out of year. I tried to apply for fasfa but they need my own income tax statements. I don’t what to do or who to contact about this matter.

    • Kira Botkin

      To be honest, I’m not sure what your being handicapped has to do with it. If you are living on your own and not receiving support from them, or anyone else, you are no one’s dependent. If you earned income, and are not anyone’s dependent, you should be filing your own tax returns with your own name at the top. If you earned income between 2009 and now, you can still file your taxes (and probably should), and that will get you some tax returns you can use for FAFSA.

      If you have not earned any income, you should talk to the school you are applying for about how to fill out the FAFSA when you have no income. If you have SSDI or something else of that nature, you should have statements from that that you could show them, and hopefully they can instruct you on how to fill out the FAFSA using those.

  • heather

    I been living with my roomate and have not worked this whole year I been getting child support n paying my half the bills for that is my roomate aloud to claim my kids

    • sara

      Had the same question, same situation. Do you mind me asking what you found out?

  • m.jackson

    my son lives with me and is twenty years old. he has a job and probably will make about 5300.00 this year. can i carry him as a dependent on my taxes?

  • Leslie Phillips

    I have a 6 year old daughter who i have full custody of, and i don’t receive child support from her father. I don’t have a job, can i still file taxes and claim her as a dependent? And if so, will i get money back?

    • Bella

      If you aren’t supporting her (paying for housing, food, etc) you can’t claim her. If you don’t have a job, they’re going to question how you can afford to support her.

  • Corrie Latour

    I have a roommate who is 70 years of age she makes 948 a month from social security and I pay the majority of the bills can I claim her on my income tax?

  • Mystic

    I am 50 years of age and I live with my son. I haven’t worked in over 3 years. So I was wondering if he can file me on his taxes because he is supporting me?

  • ajsb

    My two daughters have lived with me all year and their father has gotten them maybe 1-2 times for the day a month. I have received no money. Do I have to let him claim one of the children on his taxes?

    • am

      If they live with you and you are providing at least half their support, he has no rights to claim them. Claiming a child means you provide more than half their support for that year, anything other wise is lying and fraud. They will decide who should have gotten to claim them and got the credit and he can be penalized and also they can stop him from claiming any child credits etc for a certain number of years for this. They are rightfully yours to claim. Even if he already did it and he should not have, you get forms from the IRS to report this so they can go back and investigate.

  • dgpam

    hi,,anyone have a response to this situation. My wife and I have our daughter and her two children(our grandchildren) living with us, and have for the last three years. She, or daughter is not employed and the children’s father is paying the minimum amount of support, 200.00 dollars a month. He claimed the two children last year,,and it appears as though he has done this again, this tax season. We belief we are entitled to claim them in an amended return retro to last year, as well as this year. We have been feeding/housing/clothing these children, haircuts,,even paying for dental visits! And this non-custodial parent(we have another name for him that isn’t fit for print here) knowing he isn’t allowed to claim them,,and has not been given ANY permission to claim them, has done so now two years running. any comments would be greatly appreciated.

    • AM

      The IRS has forms you can file to say that you believe you should have been able to claim them not him, and they will determine who should have claimed and gotten the credit and he would be penalized if he wrongfully claimed them. If is is not providing more than half of their support than they are not his dependents. It is fraud. You can def claim your grandchildren like I said if you are providing support and they are living with you.

  • Issac

    My mother and I both live with my grandparents and my mother supports the both of us. Can my grandparents legally claim my mother and I as dependents on their W-2? On another note, my grandparents had an addition put on their house in 2007, and they had a den put in the blueprints so that they did not have to pay taxes on a bedroom for me. I was just wondering if that would be considered tax fraud?

    • AM

      If your mother is working and supporting the both of you than I do not believe they can also claim you guys as dependents. It would seem to me that your mom would file her own return and claim you as a dependent if you are under age 19, or up to 24 if you are still a student.

  • Shadei

    Hi, I am 19 years of age and I am unemployed and was a full time student. My mother recently filed taxes and claimed me as a dependent, since I live with her and dependent on her for my needs.
    My question is how much money does she receive for me as income tax refund? she works under $15,000 a year as income.
    Your response will be very much appreciated as it is important for me to know this.

    • AM

      May I ask why do you ask? She can claim you as a dependent up to age 24 I believe if you are a full time student and she is providing more than half of your support whether you live with her or not. She is entitled to that because she is supporting you and I think the child tax credit is about 1,000 but am not positive.

  • Grace

    My adult son lives with me . He receives SSI. Can I claim

    him?

  • kajuansa

    Filed my taxes it’s someone has already claimed my grandchild whom I ‘ve claimed over 5 years and lives with me I now have legal guardianship what are my options

  • mr. e

    I have primary physical custody but my ex is claiming them for a few things under a name that was changed on the birth certificate a year ago. Is this technically fraud because they never changed it at the Social Security office?

  • KTG

    Daughter graduated from college in May, began her job today, turned 23 last week, only took 6 hours in spring semester. I have provided full support to date. Can I still claim her as dependent or should she claim herself on w-4?

  • deanna

    My husband & I are supporting my sister and I currently do not work. Does the IRS have a table that might show how much $$ is needed to support 3 people?

  • michelle

    My ex and I have been seperated for more than five years we were never married I’ve claimed my son for taxes every year now he says he’s claiming him this year and that’s its Iowa law that he gets every other year is this true I don’t see how when I provide majority of his care

    • Shannon Ux

      Hi Michelle. I understand your situation as I’m a single parent as well.

      You should review IRS Publication 17 for full details, but the summary answer would be your ex PROBABLY cannot do what he wants.

      The best way to determine whether he can claim any exemption for you son is the custodial parent test. The IRS defines the custodial parent as the person with whom the child spends the majority of the nights of the year with. So, if you share custody with your ex and you have your son more nights than your ex, then more than likely you would be able to claim the exemption.

      Now, where your ex is getting the every other year thing is more common with parents who are divorced or have a custodial agreement that stipulates that you BOTH agree to switch off the years in which you claim your son’s exemption. IF no such written document exists, then he cannot just decide that he is claiming your son.

      If he beats you to filing, he may get the exemption initially, but there are steps you can take to fight him and the IRS will side with the custodial parent. If that is you, then he would likely have further issues with the IRS (a warning to him if you will).

  • sara

    Can my room mate claim my 2 children even though I am still legally married?

  • RAHUL

    hi I have just moved to the us from Canada, and am currently on a TN status I was asked to file the w4 form to which I am confused on line 3 what to check mark. the options are single , married and married but withhold at higher tax rate. also listed below is if married but legally separated, or spouse is non resident alien check the single box..
    my issue is my wife is currently an Indian citizen and is living in the us with me as a TN dependent. can anyways please guide me what the right answer for this will be as I need to submit the same to get paid.. thanks

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