So Dependent On You: Who Can I Claim as a Dependents on my 2009 Tax Return?

Deductions and Credits, Tax Tips

Over the past few years, questions around who can claim who and why has dramatically changed. There are more blended families in the U.S. The economy has taken a toll on our bottom lines resulting in three or four generations of families living together to save money. And yes, even non-family members moving in with each other to save a buck.

So how do those changes affect your tax situation? Can you claim your girlfriend on your taxes? What about your son who lives with your mother? And of course, pets. Can you claim Buster the beagle on your taxes? I sat down with Lee Ferris, one of our in-house tax experts and asked her those same questions.

The question and answer session aims to explain some of the more common dependent questions so you can get your biggest refund possible.

Question: Can someone claim their girlfriend or boyfriend on their taxes?

Answer: If your girlfriend has lived with you for all of 2009, her gross income is less than $3,650, and you’ve provided more than half of her total support (which is room board, food, car, insurance, etc.), you could claim her as a dependent on your tax return. To determine if you pay for more than half of her support, see IRS Pub 501 page 20. Each dependent you claim on your 2009 tax return reduces your taxable income by up to $3,650.

Question: What if we have a child, can I claim the baby also?

Answer: If the baby is your child, lived with you for more than half the year, and can’t support itself, you can claim the child as your dependent. And I know you are thinking, ‘Of course my baby can’t support itself.’ This was a-recent change by the IRS and a good example is if you have a child that is an actor. That child might be receiving a decent income and that counts as supporting itself.

But for all those parents with non-actor children out there, you can claim a child under the age of 19. If the child is a full-time student then you can claim them until the age of 24. If they are 25, working on their master’s degree and not earning any income you might be able to claim what the IRS calls a “qualified relative.” I would recommend visiting the IRS link to get more info on what defines the qualified relative and qualified child.

Question: My sister lives with me, and she receives Social Security Disability Benefits. If I charge her rent – which gets paid with social security – can I claim her as a dependent on my tax return?

Answer: If you are providing more than half of her total support (taking into consideration the rent she’s paying you) and she doesn’t make more than $3,650 a year, you can most likely claim her. Remember her social security isn’t counted as gross income. Look at the IRS worksheet in pub 501 to get more information on this.

Question: Can I claim any of my pets? What if they require special needs?

Answer: No. But I have been reading about a bill in Congress that is making the rounds that allows people to deduct pet medical expenses up to $3,500. The bill is proposed by Republican Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan. I am not sure what will happen with this but it is worth paying attention to.

Q: My parents just moved in with us so that we can take care of them. Can I claim them?

Answer: This is a common question right now because of the economy. If they are living with you, their only source of income is social security, and you are supporting them by more than 50 percent, you can claim them as a qualified relative. Remember, social security doesn’t count towards their gross income. Also, remember that since they are qualified relatives, they don’t have to live with you. You could be supporting them in their own home and still claim them as dependents.

Question: Can I still claim my spouse even though she received unemployment the majority of the year?

Answer: Even if your spouse is a stay-at-home mom, you can’t claim her as a dependent. This is why I encourage you to file a joint return. That way you get $3,650 for you and $3,650 for your spouse as a write-off – also known as an exemption. So 99 percent of the time it is more beneficial to file jointly because of that write-off amount and other deductions and credits.

However, one of my top questions this year is “Is unemployment taxable?” And the answer is, the first $2,400 of unemployment is NOT taxable. If both spouses receive unemployment benefits during 2009, each may exclude from taxable income the first $2,400 of benefits they received.

Question: I have been supporting my grandchild for the past six months and paid for everything. Do I claim her or does my daughter?

Answer: It depends. There are some questions you need to answer first. Will the father claim the child on his return? Is your daughter going to claim the child? If the child has lived with you for more than six months, both the father and your daughter are not going to claim the child , then yes, you can probably claim your granddaughter as a qualified child and get the various child credits on your tax return.

Question: Can I claim my niece if she is here on a student visa, going to college, and living with us? She makes no money here, pays no rent to us and we support all her expenses, except for tuition.

Answer: In this case, if she is under 24 and a full-time student and she’s not a qualifying child for anyone else, you can probably claim her as a dependent. But I like to urge people to please ensure that someone else is not already claiming the person in question as a dependent. Your niece can’t be claimed more than once. Also you can only claim the niece as a dependent if she’s a U.S citizen, U.S. resident, U.S. National, or resident of Canada or Mexico.

For questions we haven’t covered, please check out the page. The site has updated sample situations to help U.S. filers.

Check out this TurboTax video as well: