Is Your Dependent Really Your Dependent?

You help your son pay for his college tuition, but is he really your dependent? The IRS defines a dependent as a qualifying child or qualifying relative for whom you can claim a tax exemption. If you financially support a child or a relative, you may be able to claim them as a dependent on your tax return, provided that they meet all requirements below. The dependent must also be a U.S. citizen, or a resident of the U.S., Canada, or Mexico. For each exemption you claim in 2016, you can deduct $4,050—keep in mind that if you claim an exemption for a dependent, that dependent can't take a personal exemption on his or her own tax return.

Qualifying Child

There are five tests that must be met for a child to be considered your qualifying child.

  1. Relationship - The child must be your son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, or a descendant of any of them (such as your grandchild). The child may also be your brother, sister, half-sibling, step-sibling, or a descendant of any of them (such as your niece or nephew).
  2. Age - The child must be under age 19, or a full-time student under age 24, or any age if permanently and totally disabled.
  3. Residency - The child must have lived with you for at least 6 months of the tax year. Temporary absences, such as being away from home at school, are not considered as being absent.
  4. Support - The child must not have provided more than half of his or her own support for the year. For example, if you provided $8,000 toward your 19-year-old son's support, but he provided $12,000 to his own support from a part-time job, a savings account, and student loans, then he is not your dependent. If you aren't sure how much support your child provided, our Dependency Support Worksheet can help.
  5. Joint return - The child must not be filing a joint return for the year. For example, if your 18-year-old daughter lived with you all of 2016 while her husband was serving in the Army and the couple files a joint return, you can't take an exemption for your daughter.

Qualifying Relative

There are four tests that must be met for a relative to be considered your qualifying relative. Unlike a qualifying child, a qualifying relative can be any age.

  1. Not a qualifying child test - The person can't be your qualifying child or the qualifying child of any other taxpayer. For example, if your 6-month-old son lives with your parents and meets the tests to be their qualifying child, then he is not your qualifying relative.
  2. Member of household or relationship test - The person must live with you all year as a member of your household, or be related to you (this includes a child, sibling, parent, grandparent, half-sibling, step-sibling). If you support your mother-in-law, even if she doesn't live with you, you can claim her as a dependent if all other tests are met.
  3. Gross income test - The person's gross income for the year must be less than $4,050 (unless the person is disabled and has income from a sheltered workshop). Gross income is all taxable income in the form of money, property, and services.
  4. Support test - You must provide more than half of the person's total support for the year. Our Dependency Support Worksheet can help you calculate how much support you provided.