Tax Dependent Explained

Updated for Tax Year 2015 (for returns filed in 2016)

Can you be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return?  Can you claim your child or relative as a dependent on your taxes?  Answering these questions correctly is required to do your taxes and maximize your refund.  It determines who can claim an exemption on their taxes, which reduces one’s taxable income by $4,000 for each dependent in tax year 2015 (up from $3,950 in 2014).  Tax dependent rules also apply to other benefits, such as tax credits like the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the Earned Income Credit.

 

Can someone else claim me as a dependent on their tax return?

The short answer is that a relative (often your parent) can claim you as a dependent if:

  • You were under age 19, or 24 if you're a full-time student, at the end of 2015, and
  • They provided over half of your living expenses, and
  • You lived with them over half the year. If you're a student who is "living" near campus for school, the IRS usually counts this as living with your parents and they can still claim you as a dependent.

Some other obscure rules apply, too.  If you’re masochistic you can read IRS Publication 501 for the full scoop.

Here are some common examples to help you decide:

  • You are a 20 year old full-time college student. You live on or near your college campus during the fall and spring semesters and with your parents during the summer.  You work some throughout the year, but your parents provide more than half of your total financial support, including school expenses like tuition, fees, room and board.  Your parents can claim you as a dependent.
  • You are a 22 year old college student (full or part time). You receive minimal to no financial support from your parents and work to put yourself through school and pay for your apartment. Your parents can NOT claim you as a dependent. 
  • You are 23. You just graduated college and got your first full-time job. Your parents can NOT claim you as a dependent. 
  • You are an 18 year old high school senior. You work part time through the year and live with your parents.  Your parents can claim you as a dependent.

If your parent can claim you, then they get a $4,000 dependent exemption on their taxes.  If no one can claim you as a dependent, then you get a $4,000 personal exemption on your taxes.

 

Can I claim someone else as a dependent on my taxes?

Again, the IRS rules for qualifying dependents cover every crazy situation you can think of, from housekeepers to emancipated offspring.  Thankfully, most of us live simpler lives. These basic rules will cover almost everyone.

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, a U.S. resident, or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
  • 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 return.
  • 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.

 

Qualifying Child

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.

 

Qualifying Relative

Many people provide support to their parents. But just because you mail your 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.
  • Do they make less than $4,000? Your relative cannot have a gross income of more than $4,000 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.

You can claim a $4,000 (in Tax Year 2015, up from $3,950 in 2014) exemption for each qualifying dependent.

 

This sounds complicated, but don't sweat it.  TaxAct asks you all the right questions so you don't have to read IRS publications. You simply answer a few questions and they do the work to file your taxes accurately and maximize your refund.  

 



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