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 (Different rules apply when the parents are divorced)
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 $4,300 in 2020? Your relative cannot have a gross income of more than $4,300 in 2020 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.
Does my child need to file their own tax return this year?
You should not include your child's wages on your return.
If children are still considered your dependents they must file their own return if:
Their unearned income is greater than $1,100* (like interest and dividends);
*In general, in 2021 the first $1,100 worth of a child's unearned income is tax-free. The next $1,100 is taxed at the child's income tax rate for 2021. Anything above $2,200, however, is taxed at the marginal tax rate of the parent(s), which usually is higher than the child's rate. This tax treatment has gained a nickname: the "kiddie tax." Calculating how much tax applies to the child's income is the purpose of Form 8615.
Their earned income is greater than $12,200 (from a job, reported on a W-2); or
They received a 1099-NEC and their net earnings from self-employment was at least $400.
If your child files their own return, be sure that they checks the boxes:
can be claimed on someone else's return; and
is being claimed on someone else's return
This is very important because you want to claim them on your return.