Rules for Claiming Dependents on a Federal Tax Return

by Cynthia Myers

The Internal Revenue Service allows you to take an exemption -- that is, a reduction in your income -- for each dependent you claim on your tax return. Dependents are often children, but they also may be other persons for whom you are financially responsible. You may also be entitled to other deductions, such as child-care credits, for your dependents. Knowing the rules for claiming dependents will allow you to take advantage of every legal deduction without breaking the law.

Qualifying Child

A qualifying child may be your son, daughter, stepson, stepdaughter or foster child. A qualifying child may also be your sister or brother, stepsister or stepbrother or half-sister or half-brother. For married couples who file joint tax returns, the child may be related to either of you. The child must be under the age of 19 at the end of the year for which you are filing taxes, or under age 24 and a full-time student, and the child must be younger than you or your spouse. If you are 22 and your spouse is 20, you can’t claim her 23-year-old college student brother as a dependent. The child may be any age if he is permanently and totally disabled. A qualifying child must have lived with you for more than half the year. A child for who your provide support who does not live with you for at least half the year may be a qualifying relative.

Qualifying Relative

If you provide support for a relative, you may be able to claim an exemption for the relative. A qualifying relative does not have to meet any age requirement, so you may take this deduction for a parent or in-law, stepparent, aunt or uncle, niece or nephew, grandchild or a son or daughter who lives with someone else for all or part of the year. If a person was related to you by marriage and your spouse dies or you divorce, the relationship is considered intact for tax purposes. If you support your mother-in-law and your wife dies, yet you continue to support your mother-in-law, you can still claim an exemption for her on your taxes. A qualifying relative may not have a gross income of more than $3,700.


To claim the exemption for a qualifying relative, you must provide more than half that person’s support during the year. The IRS supplies a worksheet to help you in this computation, but if you compare all you contribute toward that person’s housing, food, clothing and medical bills for the year and compare that with amounts from other sources, including their own income, used to pay these bills, if the total you contributed is more than the amount from other sources, you meet the support test. If two or more people provide support for a qualifying relative, but neither provides more than half that person’s support, you can sign a multiple support agreement in which you agree to claim the exemption for that person’s support in different years. Parents who share custody of children or children who support an elderly parent may use these agreements so that one person claims the dependent exemption one year and another person claims the exemption the next year.


You can’t claim a person as a dependent if that person is not related to you in some way. Even if you provide full support for an elderly neighbor, you can’t claim that person as a dependent if she is not a relative. You can’t claim your pets as dependents, even if you treat them as members of the family. You can’t claim someone as a dependent if they are already claimed as a dependent on another person’s taxes for the year. You can’t claim a married person as a dependent if that person files a joint return. If your 18-year-old daughter marries and she and her husband file a joint return and pay taxes, you can’t claim your daughter as your dependent.

Other Considerations

You cannot claim any dependents if you yourself are a dependent on someone else’s taxes-- that is, if someone else provides more than half of your support, you cannot claim someone else, such as your child, as your dependent. A dependent must be a United States citizen, a resident alien, a U.S. national or a citizen of Mexico or Canada. You must have a Social Security number for your dependent, or a tax identification number for aliens. The only exception is for a live born child who died after birth, before you applied for a Social Security number for him. In this case, you may submit the birth and death certificates for the child in lieu of the Social Security number.

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