Taxes: Answers to FAQs about dependents, exemptions

Do you have dependents? (Photo by Bess Hamiti from Pexels)

Even if we think we have some knowledge about anything tax-related, it can be a stressful time. And it’s certainly not a time when you want to play a guessing game.

The Internal Revenue Service gets many questions from many people, but these are the top frequently asked questions concerning dependents and exemptions:

Q: Is there an age limit on claiming my child as a dependent?

A: Your child must meet either the qualifying child test or the qualifying relative test in order for you to claim them as a dependent:

1. To meet the qualifying child test, your child must be younger than you and either younger than 19 years old or be a "student" younger than 24 years old as of the end of the calendar year. 2. There's no age limit if your child is "permanently and totally disabled" or meets the qualifying relative test.

In addition to meeting the qualifying child or qualifying relative test, your child must also meet all of the other tests to be your dependent:

1. Dependent taxpayer test 2. Citizen or resident test 3. Joint return test

Q: I am divorced with one child. This year, my ex-spouse, who is the noncustodial parent, is entitled to claim an exemption for our child. Do I still qualify as head of household?

A: You may still qualify for head of household filing status even though you aren't entitled to claim an exemption for your child, if you meet the following requirements:

1. You're not married or you’re considered unmarried on the last day of the year. 2. You paid more than half of the cost of keeping up a home, which was your home and the main home of your child for more than half of the year.

See Publication 501, Exemptions, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information for details.

Q: My spouse and I are filing as married filing separately. We both contributed to the support of our son. Can we both claim him as a dependent on our separate returns?

A: No. A child may only be claimed as a dependent on one return in a tax year.

Click here to learn more about who can claim a qualifying child of more than one person.

Q: I am adopting a child and don't yet have a Social Security number for the child. How can I claim the child as my dependent?

A: As a prospective adoptive parent in the process of adopting a U.S. citizen or resident, you'll need a taxpayer identifying number (TIN) for the child who is being adopted to claim the child as a dependent. If as the prospective adoptive parent you don't have and are unable to obtain the child's Social Security number, you should request an adoption taxpayer identification number (ATIN) or individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN).

- An ATIN is available if a child who is a U.S. citizen or resident is lawfully placed in your household for legal adoption. To obtain an ATIN, use Form W-7A, Application for Taxpayer Identification Number for Pending U.S. Adoptions. For more information, refer to the Form W-7A and to Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number. - If the child isn't a U.S. citizen or resident, and if the child qualifies as a dependent, a TIN is still required. To obtain an ITIN, use Form W-7, Application for IRS Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. For more information, refer to Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).

Please note that for tax years 2018 through 2025, you can't claim the child tax credit on either your original or an amended return if your child doesn't have an SSN valid for employment by the due date of your return (including extensions). If your child has an ATIN or an ITIN, your child may qualify you for the credit for other dependents.

Q: My spouse and I supported someone for the last year who is not our child. Can we claim them as a dependent?

A: In order to claim someone as your dependent, the person must meet certain tests as shown below.

The dependent must be:

1. Either your qualifying child or a qualifying relative. 2. A U.S. citizen, U.S. resident, U.S. national or a resident of Canada or Mexico. 3. Unmarried or, if married, not filing a joint return, or only filing a joint return to claim a refund of income tax withheld or estimated tax paid.

You must also meet the dependent taxpayer test. If you can be claimed as a dependent by another person, you can't claim anyone else as a dependent.

The requirements for qualifying child and qualifying relative as well as additional information regarding these tests can be found in Publication 501, Exemption, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information.

Q: How much income can an unmarried dependent student make before he or she must file an income tax return?

A: An unmarried dependent student must file a tax return if his or her earned or unearned income exceeds certain limits. Click here to find these limits, or click here to see if your income requires you to file.

Even if you don't have to file a federal income tax return, you should file if you can get money back (for example, you had federal income tax withheld from your pay or you qualify for a refundable tax credit).

Note: All data taken from the IRS website. Click here if you’d like to learn more.

This was first published in 2019. It has since been updated.

About the Author:

Dawn Jorgenson, Graham Media Group Branded Content Managing Editor, began working with the group in April 2013. She graduated from Texas State University with a degree in electronic media.