Can Divorced Parents Alternate Claiming Dependents on Tax Returns?

by Beverly Bird, studioD

The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t want to get involved in disputes between divorced parents over who can claim their children as dependents. It has developed some hard and fast rules to determine which parent qualifies. If parents can reach an agreement regarding dependency exemptions, such as alternating them from year to year, the IRS will honor the agreement.

Reaching an Agreement

For some parents, alternating the exemption is the best solution, especially if they have only one child. Mom can claim the child in the current year, and Dad can claim him next year. The cycle continues until the child leaves the nest and is no longer dependent on his parents for support. If you have an even number of children, such as two or four, the IRS allows each of you to claim half of them. If you have an odd number of children, such as three, each of you can claim one and alternate the third child. Ideally, you should include your decision in your divorce decree or marital settlement, but the IRS doesn’t prohibit you from filing according to an agreement you reach after your divorce. One caveat: You can’t “split” the exemption. As of 2011, it amounts to $3,700 per child. If you have one child, you can’t each claim $1,850.

Impact on Tax Credits

One important consideration regarding who is going to claim the children is the associated tax credits. The parent who claims the child as a dependent is the only one who can take advantage of the child tax credit. The IRS doesn’t allow you to override this rule; you can’t agree that one parent takes the deduction and the other takes the credit. You can’t alternate the dependent care credit, either. This comes off the tax bill of the parent who has to pay someone to care for her child while she works. The IRS will only allow the custodial parent to claim this credit, the one your child spends most of her time with on a yearly basis.

Notifying the IRS

If you’ve agreed to alternate your exemptions, you must notify the IRS that you’re doing so. You can’t simply claim the deductions on your returns in whatever way you've decided to do it. Depending on when you were divorced, you have different options. If you were divorced prior to 2009, you can attach a copy of your marital settlement agreement or divorce decree to your return if it includes your agreement to alternate the exemptions. If it doesn’t, or if you were divorced after Jan. 1, 2009, you must complete IRS Form 8332 and attach it to your tax return. The form states that the custodial parent, the one the IRS says should take the exemption, is waiving this right and allowing the non-custodial parent to take it.


You can use Form 8332 to cover one year, several years, one child or several children. If your agreement isn’t already included in your divorce decree, it might be best to complete a new Form 8332 yearly to confirm your agreement. If you submit one for several years going into the future, the IRS makes it difficult to change your mind later.

About the Author

Beverly Bird has been writing professionally since 1983. She is the author of several novels including the bestselling "Comes the Rain" and "With Every Breath." Bird also has extensive experience as a paralegal, primarily in the areas of divorce and family law, bankruptcy and estate law. She covers many legal topics in her articles.

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