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Who Counts as a Dependent for Taxes?

Deductions and Credits

For updated information also see Who Can I Claim as My Dependent?

Tax season is when we look at our family and friends in a different – and tax-deductible – light.

Can you count your sister-in-law as a dependent? How about claiming your girlfriend and her unemployed brother? What about claiming your pet as a dependent?

Believe it or not, the IRS code tells us that any of the above, except the retriever, could qualify as a dependent under the right circumstances.

Why are dependents good to have at tax time? There are many tax benefits for having dependents.

For each dependent you can legally claim, you get a $3,500 deduction on your 2008 taxes. So if you are in the 25 percent tax bracket and have three dependents, worth $10,500 in deductions, you could save $2,625 on your taxes. (However, for some higher-income earners, deductions are reduced.)

In our society, where growing numbers of people live together who aren’t married or aren’t related, it’s good to know the rules. And if economic realities mean that you’ve had grown children move back home with you, or that you’ve extended financial help to a family member, you could get a tax break.

The following guidelines only apply to adult dependents. (The IRS has all sorts of rules for dependent children, particularly those whose parents are divorced. For information, see IRS Publication 504: Divorced or Separated Individuals.)

If you claim an adult as a dependent, that person must meet several IRS qualifications:

  • Had less than $3,500 of gross income during 2008.
  • Received more than half of his or her support from you for the year.
  • Did not file a joint income tax return for 2008 with anyone else.
  • Is a citizen or resident of the United States, or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
  • Is a member of your household for the full year, or a relative who does or does not live with you.

As you can see, this last requirement opens your door – and your tax return – to many potential dependents, as long as you’re willing to support them.

So, to use our initial example, your live-in girlfriend and her brother who also lives with you could count as your dependents, if they meet qualifications.

But what if you support someone who doesn’t live with you, such as your elderly mother?

The IRS allows you to count as a dependent a whole list of relatives who don’t also have to occupy your home, as long as you provide more than half their annual support:

  • Children, stepchildren, eligible foster child, grandchildren or great grandchildren
  • Siblings, including half or step siblings
  • Parents, grandparents, or any other direct ancestors
  • Stepparents
  • Aunts or uncles
  • Nieces or nephews
  • Fathers-in-law, mothers-in-law, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law, or sisters-in-law

Unfortunately, your golden retriever is not among these. Nor is your gardener or house cleaner, even though it might seem you support them. They’re your employees, not your dependents.

Comments (272) Leave your comment

  1. I didn’t make any money last year .. and my adult son that lives in my home has .. I have a 4 yr old little girl that is disabled. Is it ok for my son to claim her and I?? Wil it effect her SSI? He is listed as living in our home on her case

  2. I usually file my husband on my taxes every year and i want to know can I file my husband on my taxes this year ,he just started getting disability October of 2014

  3. I work my husband is disabled but not receiving benefits yet.His dad gives us money monthly to help with expenses can I add that money with my income for the year?

  4. my brother-in-law is total disabled and lives in a house that my wife and I are buying and plan to retire to. Can I claim him as a dependent/

  5. I have a question. If I moved in with my sister and her 5yr old son to help her financially because she’s unemployed. Can I claim her or her son? She receives snap for her son but I also bought groceries and helped with bills.

    1. Hi,
      My husband recently passed away in 2011. Due to the circumstances, i have been out of work with mental disability. My now 22 year old son has been paying all the bills at a home i own and provides financially for my 14 year old. I have not received any income this year accept 6 months of unemployment and paid taxes weekly on unemployment checks. How would we file our taxes this year? My son claiming my daughter? My son claiming my daughter and me as a qualifying relative making him head of household? claiming my daughter and using my son as a dependent and my son filing separately?

  6. I am 18 years old and turn 19 on Janurary 24th, I am pregnant and will be having my baby boy in November of this year. I have lived with my grandparents for two years. My mom does not pay for any of my food, clothes, car insurance, cell phones bills or anything like that. My grandparents pay for my car insurance but I pay them back for it. I have a part time job, and I graduated high school in May of this year. I am enrolled for college starting in August but am only going part time, and my FASFA is paying for it. My grandparents make a lot of money and don’t feel the need to claim me. If my grandparents don’t claim me, can I claim myself as an independent? And my mom can not legally claim me if she does not support me at all, right?

  7. My son has a stepdaughter who receives social security survivor benefits from her deceased dad. I file their taxes with turbo tax. I did not list her benefits on their taxes because I didn’t think I had to since he makes twice her benefits. They received a letter saying they owed $1500 because I didn’t report her benefits. Can you help me?

  8. My son has a stepdaughter who receives social security survivor benefits from her deceased dad. I file their taxes with turbo tax. I did not list her benefits on their taxes because I didn’t think I had to since he makes twice her benefits. They received a letter saying they owed $1500 because I didn’t report her benefits. Can you help me?

  9. I’m 81 yrs old, somewhat disabled, use a wheel chair from time to time…hoping my ability to move won’t further diminish. I worked p/t last yr until I could no longer perform the duties. I have ssa as my total income, now. I live in one state and my daughter and her husband live in another. They are in a high income tax bracket and have 2 children as deductions. Since I have no other income than ssa, can they claim me as a dependent?

  10. My son is on disability due to bipolar disorder. He lives with us and we pay for all of his expenses. Can I claim him as a dependent?

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      If you provided for 2013 more than half of your son’s support (food, lodging, transportations, medical expenses, educations, recreation, etc.) and his “gross” income is less than $3,900,(this doesn’t include income such as social security disability that is not taxed and other tax free income) then you can claim him as a “qualifying relative” dependent on your tax return.

      Hope this information was helpful.

    2. Our son also has bipolar disorder which has made it extremely difficult to keep a job. He lost his last job in March of this year and has been so ill with severe depression that he hasn’t been able to work and has applied for disability (not approved yet). He doesn’t live with us, but we’re paying all of his expenses to help keep him in his apartment until hopefully he is better and able to work. We pay all his expenses which is averaging about $2,000 a month for his rent, gas, food, bills, drugs and doctor visits. I would also like to know if we can claim him as a dependent.

  11. My daughter moved out at the end of Aug. in with her boyfriend who is married and claimed her on his taxes with his wife. how and what kind of receipts do we need to prove we supported her as she was on unemployment for a month and got kicked off. We paid for everything she needed and have her on our ins.. what kind of paper work do we need ? As we are not on speaking terms and she did it out of spite to hurt us! Need to know so we can file soon. The irs said to show receipts , but what kind? As she had no medical bills!

  12. Hi
    My Mom lives in our home that we have not been able to sell which is next door. She makes about 15,000.00 per year. She pays us no rent, we take care of all her expenses except for groceries and her car. Can be claim her as a dependent?

  13. I claimed my granddaughter on my taxes as a dependent this year, but because I didn’t put her complete full name on my return in was rejected by the Federal IRS. My state went through with no problems. My state also had a copy of my federal return. What can I do to fix this. I tried calling the IRS site and it told me to call back on a less busier day 5 times. I just need to know what to do. Thank you

  14. my son was in jail 6 1/2 months in 2012 we paid all his support for him living here and when he was gone we continued sending him money for food , phone etc. We also paid all his bills he had for truck student loans etc for the whole year. can we claim him on our tax return?

  15. Hi there I currently live with my parents at 22 I work 2 jobs and I’m not in school I pay all my own bills but don’t pay to live at the house can my parents claim me I make about 25,000 a year.

  16. Live in CA, My daughter lives with me, EBT and only made $2702.00. Can I claim her on my taxes as an adult relative without there being an issue or penalty with her EBT?

  17. My fiance claimed our daughter as a dependent on her unemployment she filed for at the beginning of the year. Can I still claim my daughter as a dependent since she hasn’t gone back to work and I have been the head of household the past 4-6 months?

  18. Hello, I am in curious question.
    I am a natural gas 798 pipeliner I spent the entire year out working in different states. I get to write off my food,hotel rent etc,work clothes. My wife came with me to all my jobs can I write off her food and clothing expenses due to that she was unemployed the entire year? Also I payed about 4 months of my sisters car note to help her while she’s in rehab. Can I write that as charity?
    Thank you and God Bless.

  19. Ok so maybe someone can help me… me and my girlfriend have a 6 month old daughter and we are living together. We are not married, so i know we cant file jointly. But my question is this, without a paternity test can i leagaly claim my daughter on my taxes? I have been reading into it and nothing i have read disputes my claim. This article i found on this same site supports it from what i am understanding. Its called “The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tricky Tax Dependent Dilemmas” .
    Unmarried Parents

    Q. My boyfriend and I live together with our 3-year-old son. Since we’re not married, we can’t file a joint return. Which one of us gets to claim our son as a dependent

    A. It’s up to you. Since he qualifies as a qualifying child for each of you, either parent may claim the child as a dependent. If you can’t decide, the exemption goes to whichever of you reports the higher Adjusted Gross Income on your separate taxreturn.

  20. Thanks she said he can claim him. Since ” he goes well beyond his fatherly duties and is a great father. ” she only did it to continue to receive the child support so she can continue to not work and party in the club all the time with the child support money. smh. She’s been trying to get us not to cut the child support but it’s happening anyway. We supply everything for his son except a roof and that’s only because we need HARD proof she is an unfit mother.

  21. My ex and I broke up and seperated but I supported her and my daughter and her son for 3 1/2 years with her not working and me providing all support can I claim her son as a dependent since I supplied 100% of his support

    1. .if my 26 yr old son has lived with us since 17 yrs old …and held pt or full job …..can we claim him on our taxes.. my husband is self employed

  22. My husband and I have cared for our grandson since April of 2012 while his daughter tried to regain custody. We gained full guardianship April of 3013. I am not sure why, but we were unable to claim him on our taxes last year, even though we provided full care and he lived with us. Were we suppose to be able to obtain a deduction last year and are we able to obtain the deduction this year. Please advise. Something doesn’t seem right

  23. Hi

    My son is us citigen, I am indian citigen living in US on H1b, I son left India end of June 2013 to spend some time with grandparents at india and he will be back in April 2014.

    Can I claim him as dependent on my 2013 taxes?

    He lived with us only from Jan 2013 to June 2013.

    Looking forward to hear from you

  24. Hi,
    my husband has full custody of his daughter and has a mutual agreement (didn’t go through court) allowing her to see her daughter every other weekend without child support and now she wants to claim her as a dependant this year. My husband says she isnt able to…I just want to know if thats true. Thanks 🙂

    1. She can try to claim her daughter…but if he claims her too, it will trigger an audit and they will both have to provide evidence. Therefore, it will eventually go in your husband’s favor…but it will delayed the process.

  25. Hi There,
    Due to economic times, my father had to live with me last year off and on. I paid the majority of his bills, and living expenses. He does receive social security though. Am I able to claim him? I paid for more than half of his years expenses?

  26. Question, My husband has 50/50 custody with a 7 day weekly rotation. The mother has not worked since 2002 and we found out she lets other people claims the children each year for money. The children go to school in our district and she drives them to school on her week about 30 mins away. Can she legally let a stranger claim the children?

  27. My son was still 19 years old at the end of 2013, he is not in school. Am I allowed to still claim him as a dependent for filing my taxes this year 2014. Please respond as soon as possible. Thank you

  28. What kind of proof do I need to have that I’ve been taking care of my unemployed brother for the past 7 months, in order to claim him?

  29. Last yr my (unemployed) brother lost his home due to foreclosure, since June of 2013 he’s lived with us. We take care of him in every way. Can we claim him as a dependant?

  30. My wife regained guardianship of her daughter in August of this year from her parents and I adopted her at the same time. Am I able to claim my adopted step-daughter as a dependent this year? Thanks

  31. My daughter’s boyfriend lives with us and has since May 13, 2013. I have supported him with food, clothes, shelter. He is 18. Can I claim him? If so, how?

  32. My husband pays child support and more than half of his child’s income. The mother hasn’t worked in 7yrs. She won’t allow him to claim their son. How can she claim him if she doesn’t and hasn’t worked? The mother lives with her mother and we think the grandmother claims his son. How can we claim him since we provide the child support and she doesn’t work?

  33. my son is 20, he lived with me all year and I paid for all of his support last year, including over $4000 in medical expenses. He got a job in September and has made just over $3900 for the year. (none of which was used toward his own support) Can I claim him? He also went to school part time for 3 months during the year. (I paid for school)

  34. My cousin gave birth to her son on December 4th and was evicted from her apartment on December 10. She currently has no income and has been living with my boyfriend and I ever since. We’ve been providing 100% of their support since they moved in. She did work for the beginning of 2013 so she will be filing her own taxes but she suggested that my boyfriend claim her son as a way of paying us back for supporting them during this time. Can her son be claimed since he will not even be one month old at the end of the year? Can someone else claim her child if she is filing as well? Also will my boyfriend even be able to claim her son since they are not related?

  35. Hello, my first cousin and his girlfried had asked me and my husband if we could take care of their son that was about to be born due to the fact they can’t provide for him. I agreed and took him home straight from the hospital. We later signed and notarized a power of attorney/guardianship over him because they were going to let us adopt him later. My husband and I provided 100% for him. His parents decided to take him back in july 2013. We still provide for him but he now lives with them. Can me and my husband claim him as a dependant? And what do we need?

  36. My neice and her son lived with me all of 2012. She was in trouble with cps, so she signed and notarized a “temporary guardianship agreement” giving us guardianship of her son. It’s basically the only way cps would let her near him. Anyways, long story short, we supported them both fully for more than a year. She left in Jan of 2013 taking her son to live with my sister. We filed taxes with her son as a dependent and so did she, even tho she lived with us the whole year and did not support him or her son. She is now in jail and her son lives with my sister. Question: are we going to be in trouble and if so, since my sister is taking care of her grandson now and supporting him, can she claim him without fear of her daughter in law coming along at the first of the year and claiming him?(if she gets out of jail)

    1. Hi Marie,
      The IRS will send letters to you and your niece asking about support, etc. You will be able to provide the guardianship agreement, and show that you provided his support, and hers, entitling you to the deduction. They will modify her tax return.
      Your sister could have the same thing happen if your niece files a tax return claiming her son, and your sister also claims him.

      Mary Ellen

  37. My sister currently lives with me and she is studying in the USA on a F1 student VISA i pay for her college fees, food, clothing and shelter can i claim her on my income tax return

    1. Hi Toya,

      Your sister would have to have an ITIN and you must provide more than half of her support in order for you to claim her as a dependent.
      She can apply for an ITIN by filing a form W-7 with the IRS, if she does not have one.

      Mary Ellen

  38. If I support my sister and her infant child, but have no proof of doing so, can I claim them? She is on DSS and receives food stamps and temporary assistance with cash. I supply her diapers and wipes and buy clothes for her and her child. I occasionally help her with bills when she cannot make ends meet. She is unemployed but does not qualify for unemployment, so aside from DSS she has no income. She lives with her “boyfriend” who has a large income but does not support them in any way.

    1. Hi Laura,

      If your sister is living with her boyfriend, he is providing housing for her support. You have probably not provided more than half of her support.

      There is a worksheet in Publication 17, page 30 for determining support. You would need to complete that worksheet to determine if you are able to claim her or her child.

      Mary Ellen

  39. Is it legal for my dad to claim me as a dependent if I have been homeless since 2011, “he kicked me out” I was 18 years old, and I lived in a crisis shelter for a year and some months before my friend took me in, I filed taxes in 2012 but was denied because someone (he) claimed me as a dependent. And what steps can i take to solve this problem. Please help I need to know before the next year. Thank you

    1. Hi Travis,
      If you provided over half of your own support and did not live with your dad more than half the year, then he cannot claim you. You will have to contact the IRS. They will ask for proof of support and other test to determine who can take the exemption.
      Thank you,
      Lisa Greene-Lewis

  40. Can my ex claim my kids even if I have full custody and living with me? She claimed my kids and totally messed up my filing last year.

    1. Hi Avelino,
      If you have custody, and did not sign an agreement giving her the exemptions, you should contact the IRS. The will ask for proof of support and other tests to determine who is entitled to the exemptions.

  41. I claim my 20 year old daughter as dependent in my taxes.
    She recently was involved in an at fault auto accident away from home while in college.
    The car is registered in her name and she pays for her own insurance.
    Will claiming her on my taxes somehow make me liable if the passengers decide to file a civil lawsuit?

  42. My wife and I support our 28 yr old daughter while she goes to college in Colorado. we pay for her rent,food and car expenses along with her health insurance. Does the fact that she does not live with us disqualify us from claiming her as a dependent

  43. Hi, i pay for my brother’s tution fees completely and he has lived with me for more than half year. Only thing is he is on F-1 student visa and doesnt have SSN but has ITIN. Would that qualify him as a resident alien if he has lived in USA for more than 183 days in a year , so i can claim him as dependent on my tax return next year ?

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