Rules for claiming a dependent on your tax return
Having trouble deciding if your Uncle Jack, Grandma Betty or daughter Joan qualifies as a dependent? Here's a cheat sheet to quickly assess which of your family members you can claim on your tax return.
Why claim someone as a dependent?
If you have a family, you need to know how the IRS defines “dependents” for income tax purposes. Why? Because it could save you thousands of dollars on your taxes. For tax years prior to 2018, every qualified dependent you claim, you reduce your taxable income by the exemption amount, equal to $4,050 in 2017. This add up to substantial savings on your tax bill.
Beginning in 2018, exemptions have been replaced by:
- an increased standard deduction
- a larger Child Tax Credit (now worth up to $2,000 per qualifying child)
- a bigger Additional Child Tax Credit (up to $1,400 per qualifying child)
- as well as a new Credit for Other Dependents, which is worth up to $500 per qualifying dependent (not to be confused with the Child and Dependent Care Credit)
Dependent rules also apply to other benefits:
- such as the Earned Income Tax Credit
- the Child and Dependent Care Credit for daycare expenses
- medical expenses, various other itemized deductions and most tax credits that involve children or family issues
Qualifying for these benefits can spell the difference between owing money and receiving a refund.
The basic rules aren’t complicated. But it can be difficult to apply those rules to certain family situations. That’s especially true if you have a son off at college, a cousin who stays with you during the summer, or a daughter with a part-time job. The checklist below will help you decide which relatives you can claim as dependents.
Who qualifies as a dependent?
The IRS rules for qualifying dependents cover just about every conceivable situation, from housekeepers to emancipated offspring.
Fortunately, most of us live simpler lives. The basic rules will cover almost everyone. Here’s how it all breaks down.
There are two types of dependents, each subject to different rules:
- A qualifying child
- A qualifying relative
For both types of dependents, you’ll need to answer the following questions to determine if you can claim them.
- Are they a citizen or resident? The person must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, U.S. resident, or a resident of Canada or Mexico. Many people wonder if they can claim a foreign-exchange student who temporarily lives with them. The answer is maybe, but only if they meet this requirement.
- Are you the only person claiming them as a dependent? You can’t claim someone who takes a personal exemption for himself or claims another dependent on his own tax form.
- Are they filing a joint return? You cannot claim someone who is married and files a joint tax return. Say you support your married teenaged son: If he files a joint return with his spouse, you can’t claim him as a dependent.
In addition to the qualifications above, to claim an exemption for your child, you must be able to answer "yes" to all of the following questions.
- Are they related to you? The child can be your son, daughter, stepchild, eligible foster child, brother, sister, half brother, half sister, stepbrother, stepsister, adopted child or an offspring of any of them.
- Do they meet the age requirement? Your child must be under age 19 or, if a full-time student, under age 24. There is no age limit if your child is permanently and totally disabled.
- Do they live with you? Your child must live with you for more than half the year, but several exceptions apply.
- Do you financially support them? Your child may have a job, but that job cannot provide more than half of her support.
- Are you the only person claiming them? This requirement commonly applies to children of divorced parents. Here you must use the “tie breaker rules,” which are found in IRS Publication 501. These rules establish income, parentage and residency requirements for claiming a child.
Many people provide support to their aging parents. But just because you mail your 78-year-old mother a check every once in a while doesn’t mean you can claim her as a dependent. Here is a checklist for determining whether your mom (or other relative) qualifies.
- Do they live with you? Your relative must live at your residence all year or be on the list of “relatives who do not live with you” in Publication 501. About 30 types of relatives are on this list.
- Do they make less than $4,200 in 2019? Your relative cannot have a gross income of more than $4,200 in 2019 and be claimed by you as a dependent.
- Do you financially support them? You must provide more than half of your relative’s total support each year.
- Are you the only person claiming them? This means you can’t claim the same person twice, once as a qualifying relative and again as a qualifying child. It also means you can’t claim a relative—say a cousin—if someone else, such as his parents, also claim him.
We figure it out for you
The inclusion of qualified dependents on your tax return is one of the best tax benefits available. It can open the door to a large number of tax credits and deductions that can lower your tax bill. TurboTax will ask you simple, plain-English questions about your family and will determine for you who qualifies as a dependent on your tax return, so you can be sure you’re getting the biggest refund you deserve.
Frequently asked questions
- Can I claim my child as a dependent if she has a part-time job?
Yes, as long as the child does not provide more than half of their own support and meets other criteria noted above.
- I support my 67-year-old sister-in-law. Is she qualified to be counted as a dependent on my tax return?
Yes, because sisters-in-law meet the relationship requirement and there is no age limit for qualifying relatives. Other guidelines apply.
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