Deciphering Tax Dependents: Expert Advice from Michael S. Gawel, CPA, JD

By Michael S. Gawel, CPA, JD


Who can be claimed as a dependent? Who can claim that person as a dependent? A dependent must be a person, not your dog cat or 56 Chevy.

A dependent is an individual who is the taxpayer’s qualifying child or qualifying relative for the tax year being claimed. A qualifying child or relative must have a social security number and be a US citizen or resident of North America.

A dependent cannot claim any dependents on their own return or file a return as married filing jointly. There are special rules for children of divorced parents.

A taxpayer may claim a qualifying child as a dependent on their tax return if the child is a son, daughter, stepson or stepdaughter , grandchild, brother, sister, stepbrother or stepsister, also foster or adopted children. The individual dependent must be 19 years of age or less at the end of the year or under 24, if at least a half-time student. The individual dependent must have the same residence as the taxpayer for more than half the year (183 days). A child who is born or passes away during the claimed year is considered alive for the whole year. The claimed individual must not provide more than one half of their support and the claiming person must provide at least half of their support. The dependent cannot file a joint return.

A qualifying child of separated parents generally may be claimed as a dependent of the parent who has primary custody. If an individual may be claimed as a qualifying child of two or more taxpayers, they may decide between themselves who will claim the individual as a dependent. If the taxpayers cannot agree, as often is the case in Niagara Falls, certain tie-breaking rules apply.

In the real world, when two parents who are not together, but both want to claim the child, there is a rush to e-file their return as Head of Household and claim that child. The first parent to get their return e-filed will generally be accepted by the IRS and New York State. The second parent who e-files will get their return rejected with a statement, “that social security number was used on another return.”

I suggest that if you are in this situation, you work out an agreement, or get into my office in early January and file first and get that refund, or you both can come into my office together to maximize the refunds.

A dependent can also be a qualifying relative for head of filing status if they meet the following requirements: Relationship; child, stepchild, grandchild, brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and if that person has the same principal place of abode as the taxpayer and is a member of the household. That individual’s gross income must be less than the exemption amount, about $4,400, and the taxpayer must provide half of their support. This would include your 25 year old who just graduated with a Fine Arts Degree and lives in your basement and your Uncle Bob who is writing the great American novel.

Questions? Contact Niagara Bookkeeping and Accounting Services Inc. 716-622-0700 or

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