What if Someone Else Claimed Your Child As a Dependent?

The IRS has special tiebreaker rules

What to know about the IRS' tiebreaker rules Dependency exemption almost always goes to the parent who is given legal custody of the child by court order Assuming the child did somehow manage to spend exactly the same amount of time in each parent's home during the tax year, dependency exemption goes to the parent with the highest adjusted gross income If granted dependency exemption, file a tax return listing the correct dependents To prep for the subsequent audit, gather any records indicating that your child lived with you and when, like school and medical records

The Balance / Julie Bang

You have a child, and they live with you at least some of the time, so they're your dependent at tax time, right? Not exactly, and you certainly wouldn't be the first parent or the last to claim your child as your dependent only to find out that their other parent has already done so.

It happens often enough that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has special "tiebreaker" rules to help you determine which of you actually has the right to claim a dependent.

Key Takeaways

  • The IRS has tiebreaker rules that apply to deciding which parent has the right to claim their child as a dependent if they no longer live together and don't file a joint married return.
  • The parent with whom a child spends the most overnights is entitled to claim them as a dependent.
  • The parent with the highest adjusted gross income (AGI) is awarded the right if the child spends an equal number of nights with each of them.
  • A parent always has the first right to claim their child as a dependent if they're able to do so.

The Tiebreaker Rules 

The IRS indicates that the parent who can claim a child is the one who meets the following criteria.

First, the claim goes to the parent with whom the child lived the most during the tax year. The IRS defines this by "overnights" rather than days. These are the nights where they went to bed in one parent's home or the other, vacations included. This typically means that the dependency exemption goes to the custodial parent, the one who has legal custody of the child by court order, because the other parent has only visitation or occasional parenting time.

Assuming the child did spend exactly the same number of overnights in each parent's home during the tax year—or maybe the parents live together but can't or don't file a joint married return—the tiebreaker rules give the dependency exemption to the parent with the higher adjusted gross income.

If someone other than a parent is trying to claim your child, they're out of luck. A parent always has the first right to claim their child as a dependent if they're able to do so. The IRS gives a detailed explanation of circumstances under which neither parent might be able to claim their child in Publication 504. It's rare, but it does occasionally happen.

Does Claiming Your Child Affect Your Tax Situation?

Claiming your child as a dependent can save you some tax dollars if you meet the requirements.

The passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) eliminated personal exemptions from the tax code through at least 2025. You could claim an exemption for yourself, your spouse, and each one of your dependents up until 2018. But claiming a dependent can qualify you for several advantageous tax credits and tax deductions, and it can affect your filing status, which can create other tax reductions.

It will trigger an IRS audit using the tiebreaker rules to determine who gets to claim the child if both you and your former partner file returns claiming them and neither of you is willing to amend your return to reverse the claim.

You Can Relinquish Your Claim

A custodial parent can give the noncustodial parent the right to claim their child by signing Form 8332. Your former partner can submit it with their tax return. You should sign this form for every year you plan to relinquish the exemption claim. You might want to do this if it provides them with a tax break but has no effect on your tax situation, particularly while personal exemptions are repealed.


You can resubmit Form 8332 to revoke the release if you change your mind.

Who Else Might Have Claimed Your Child?

The IRS can't tell you who claimed your dependent because it's prohibited by Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code. The agency can't disclose information relating to a tax return to anyone other than the filer. That said, you probably have a good idea of who, if anyone, claimed your child. The culprit would have to know the child's name, their Social Security number, and their date of birth.

But it isn't always the child's other parent who tries to claim them. Maybe your former partner and your child are living with another relative who thinks they're entitled.

What To Do if the Wrong Person Has Claimed Your Child

Print out your tax return listing the correct dependents, and file the return with the IRS if your child has been claimed by someone else. You'll have to mail the return for manual processing.

The next step is to prepare yourself for an audit if the individual who claimed your child won't file an amended return revoking the claim. The IRS will audit both your tax return and that of the other party. It will ask questions and seek documentation based on the eligibility criteria and the tiebreaker tests.

Gather any and all records indicating that your child lived with you and when. Ideally, you have a custody order or agreement detailing exactly when your child resides in your residence. School and medical records can also be helpful.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Who can claim a dependent child on their taxes?

To claim a dependent child, no one else may be able to claim you as a dependent on their tax return. Your dependent must also be a U.S. citizen, resident alien, national, or a resident of Canada or Mexico. In most cases, they must also:

  • Be your child or a legal descendent of your children or your siblings
  • Be younger than you and under age 19 at the end of the year (or under 24 if a full-time student)
  • Have lived with you for more than half the year
  • Have not provided more than half of their support during the year

How do you claim a dependent on your taxes?

You must provide their name, relationship to you, date of birth, and Social Security number on Form 1040 to claim a dependent when you file your taxes.

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