Who Qualifies as a Dependent for Tax Purposes?

Who Qualifies as a Dependent?

To claim someone as your dependent, the person must be a US citizen, national, or resident alien and have an SSN, ITIN, or ATIN. In addition to these general principles, there are also age-specific rules dictating who you can claim as your dependent.

Claiming Child Dependents

In order to claim someone as a child dependent, the following conditions must be met:

    • You must pay at least 50% of the child’s support or expenses.
    • The child must be under 19 years old.
    • The child must be younger than you.

Exceptions to these rules include:

    • You may claim a child up to 24 years old if they are a full-time student and attended school for at least five months of that year.
    • You can claim a child as a dependent regardless of their age if they are permanently and totally

Claiming Adult Dependents

The guidelines for claiming an adult as a dependent are very similar to claiming a child dependent and include:

    • You and the adult must be a qualifying relationship.
    • You must pay for at least 50% of the adult’s support and expenses.
    • The adult must have either been living with you for the entire year or be related to you.
    • The adult’s gross income cannot exceed $4,150.
    • The adult cannot be claimed as a dependent by anyone else.

Adult dependents may include siblings, aunts, uncles, in-laws, parents, your domestic partner, or a friend—as long as they meet these criteria.

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Who can claim a dependent?

In order to claim a dependent, you (the taxpayer) cannot qualify as a dependent of another taxpayer. Your potential dependent(s) must also meet the rules for Qualifying Child or Qualifying Relative.

The Two Types of Qualifying Tax Dependents

Children and relatives can qualify as tax dependents—but their definitions are broader than you may suspect.

In addition to your birth child or an adopted child, your foster child, siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings (along with all the siblings’ descendants) can be qualifying children. And your son-in-law, mother-in-law, parents, grandparents and in-laws could all be qualifying relatives.

A person doesn’t even need to be a relative to count as a qualifying relative. A girlfriend, boyfriend or roommate could be your dependent as long as the person is a member of your household for the entire year and meets all the other requirements.

The IRS’ Publication 17, chapter 3, has a complete list of which relationships can qualify someone as a child or relative for dependent purposes.

In addition to the relationship requirement, the qualifying child or qualifying relative has to pass a series of “tests.”

Qualifying Children

There are four tests for qualifying children:

  1. The child must be 19 or younger at the end of the tax year and younger than you (and your spouse if you file a joint return). Qualifying children can be up to 24 years old if they’re also full-time students for at least five months of the year, or they can be any age if they’re permanently and totally disabled.
  2. The child has to live with you for at least half the year. There are exceptions for temporary absences, such as when you or the child are away from home for school, business, vacation or military service.
  3. The child can’t provide more than half of his or her own support during the year (scholarships don’t count as support).
  4. The child can’t file a joint tax return unless the only reason for filing is to get back the taxes that were withheld from his or her pay or were part of estimated tax payments.

The rules for who can claim a qualifying child can get fairly complex when both parents can claim the child as a dependent but they aren’t married, or they file their tax returns using the married filing separately status.

Some parents switch off, letting one person claim the child one year and the other parent claim the child the next. The IRS also has an official series of tiebreaker rules (see page 30 of Publication 17) to determine who can claim the child if you can’t come to an amicable agreement.

Qualifying Relatives

There are three additional tests for your qualifying relatives:

  1. The person can’t be anyone’s qualifying child.
  2. The person’s gross income must be below $4,150. Income could include money, property, goods or services they received, and it may include Social Security benefits. However, there are exceptions for people with disabilities who received income from certain tax-exempt schools.
  3. You have to provide more than half of the person’s support for the year.

If working through all the tests sound like too much work, you could also try the IRS’ interactive tool, which can help you determine if you can claim someone as a dependent.

The Credit for Other Dependents

Known as the “credit for other dependents,” this is the additional tax credit provided under the TCJA. It used to be that you could only claim the child tax credit for each of your minor dependents. They had to be age 16 or younger as of the last day of the tax year.

You can still claim the child tax credit for your younger kids, but your 17-plus-year-olds are no longer left out in the cold as long as they qualify as your dependents. The TCJA offers the credit for other dependents for those over age 16. The 2021 American Rescue Plan also expanded the child tax credit to include 17-year-olds (but only for the 2021 tax year).

Your dependent doesn’t have to be your child to allow you to claim this credit. They can be your parent, sibling, or cousin—or not even related to you at all. They must meet all the other IRS qualifying rules for adult dependents, however. The credit is $500 per dependent as of 2021.

How long can you claim an adult child as a dependent?

There is no age limit for how long you can claim adult children or other relatives as dependents, but they must meet other IRS requirements to continue to qualify. Additionally, once they are over 18 and no longer a student, they can only qualify as an "other dependent," not a qualifying child.

When can’t I claim my significant other as a dependent?

Even if you and your partner meet the above qualifications, the IRS dependent rules include several caveats that provide further restrictions.

For instance, you cannot claim your partner as a dependent if someone else claims him or her as a dependent on their tax return. Each dependent can only be claimed by one taxpayer. If your significant other is claimed by his or her parents, children, or ex-spouse, you cannot claim him or her as a dependent.

Further, you cannot claim your significant other as a dependent if he or she is not a citizen or resident of the United States. Residents of Canada or Mexico also qualify.

Types of Dependents

Qualifying Child

Certain tests are used specifically to determine if a dependent is a qualifying child or a qualifying relative. To meet the IRC relationship test—and be considered a qualifying child—the child must be:

  • The taxpayer’s son, daughter, stepchild, foster child (placed by an authorized placement agency), or a descendant (for example, a grandchild) of any of them
  • The taxpayer’s brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant (for example, niece or nephew) of any of them

To meet the IRC age test, the child must be:

  • Under age 19 at the end of the tax year and younger than the taxpayer (or the taxpayer’s spouse, if filing jointly)
  • A full-time student under the age of 24 at the end of the year and younger than the taxpayer (or spouse, if filing jointly)

The final tests to determine if the individual qualifies as a qualifying child are the resident test and the support test. To meet the resident test, the child must have lived with the taxpayer for more than half of the year; however, there are exceptions to this rule.

For example, if the child or the taxpayer is temporarily absent due to illness, education, business, vacation, military service, institutionalized care for a child who is permanently and totally disabled, or incarceration, then the child is still considered part of the residence (living with the taxpayer) during this time.

The support test requires that the child cannot have provided more than half of their own financial support during the tax year.

You may be eligible to file as head of household even if the child who is your qualifying person has been kidnapped. This treatment applies for all years until the year when there is a determination that the child is dead, or the year when the child would have reached age 18 (whichever is earlier).

Qualifying Relative

If these tests are not met, then the taxpayer may decide to see if the tests for a qualifying relative are met. These tests are slightly different and are applied only when the tests for a qualifying child are not met. Unlike a qualifying child, a qualifying relative can be any age.

A qualifying relative must meet the “not a qualifying child” test, the member of household or relationship test, the gross income test, and the support test. A child cannot be a taxpayer’s qualifying relative if the child is the taxpayer’s qualifying child (or is the qualifying child of any other taxpayer).

To meet the member of household or relationship test, the person either must live as a member of the taxpayer’s household all year or be related to the taxpayer. It is important to note that an adopted child is treated the same as a natural child and that any of these relationships that were established by marriage are not ended by death or divorce.

To meet the gross income test, the dependent’s gross income for the tax year must be less than the threshold amount. This amount changes every year, but for the 2021 tax year, the amount is $4,300 (rising to $4,400 in 2022).

The deduction for personal and dependency exemptions is suspended for tax years 2018 through 2025 by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which was signed into law in 2017 by then-President Donald Trump. Although the exemption amount is zero, the ability to claim a dependent may make taxpayers eligible for other tax benefits.

Finally, to meet the support test, the taxpayer must have provided more than 50% of the person’s total support for the tax year. (This support test should be differentiated from the one for a qualifying child, which tests whether the child provided more than half of their own support for the year.)

Call SH Block for Help Claiming Dependents on Your Tax Returns

If you received a notice from the IRS disallowing one of your dependents, an experienced tax expert might be able to help. At SH Block, our tax professionals will work with you to communicate your erroneous disallowance to the IRS and resolve the issue with minimal hassle.

Have a unique family situation? The Tax Court is starting to show some leniency towards non-traditional households and may rule in your favor. Consult with an SH Block tax attorney before filing your taxes to determine the best way to claim someone as a dependent to maximize your returns and tax credits.

Contact SH Block by filling out our online form or calling (410) 793-1231 today for your free consultation.

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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