Who Qualifies as a Dependent for Taxes?

Quick Answer

To claim a dependent on your tax return, they need to meet IRS guidelines. A qualifying child or relative must be related to you or live with you as a member of your household, as well as meet other requirements.

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Claiming a dependent could save you money on your taxes, but who qualifies as a dependent in the eyes of the IRS? According to the IRS, a tax dependent must be your qualifying child or qualifying relative, but it's not as simple as ruling in your biological children and ruling out anyone who doesn't share an ancestor.

Here's how the IRS defines tax dependents.

What Is a Tax Dependent?

Loosely speaking, a dependent is someone who relies on you for support. Claiming a tax dependent could qualify you for head of household tax filing status, or tax credits like the child tax credit or the child and dependent care credit. For IRS purposes, qualifying dependents must meet specific criteria.

  • Your dependent can't be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer.
  • A dependent can't be married filing a joint return unless it's solely for the purpose of claiming a tax refund.
  • Your dependent must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. resident alien, U.S. national or a resident of Canada or Mexico.
  • A tax dependent must be your qualifying child or qualifying relative.
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Who Is a Qualifying Child for a Tax Dependent?

In addition to your children, the IRS recognizes stepchildren, foster children, siblings, grandchildren and many other relatives as dependents, as long as they meet all of the IRS criteria. Here's the full IRS list of requirements:

  • They must be related to you in one of the following ways, either by birth or adoption:

    • Son or daughter
    • Stepchild
    • Foster child
    • Brother or sister
    • Half brother or half sister
    • Stepbrother or stepsister
    • The descendants of any of the above (such as grandchildren or nieces and nephews)
  • They must be younger than you and your spouse (if you file jointly) and either under age 19 at the end of the year or under 24 if they're a full-time student.
  • They must have lived with you for more than half the year.
  • They must not provide more than half of their own support during the year.
  • They are not filing a joint return (except for the purpose of receiving a refund).
  • You must be entitled to claim the child as your dependent even if they qualify as a dependent for another taxpayer. This provision often applies to families where parents are divorced.

Who Is a Qualifying Relative for a Tax Dependent?

If you live full time with someone who depends on you for support, the IRS may consider them a qualifying relative if they meet the following guidelines:

  • They are not your qualifying child or the qualifying child of another taxpayer.
  • They are related to you or live with you as a member of your household.
  • They don't have a gross income of $4,300 or more.
  • They receive more than half of their support from you.

Based on these qualifications, qualifying relatives do not need to be related to you. As long as they meet all of these requirements, your roommate could be considered a qualifying relative for tax purposes.

How Much Are Tax Credits for Dependents?

Claiming dependents on your federal tax return can make a difference in how much you'll pay. To file your taxes as head of household, for example, you need to claim at least one qualifying dependent. As head of household, you can take a $20,800 standard deduction in 2023, versus $13,850 for a single taxpayer. If you're in the 22% tax bracket, this $6,950 difference could roughly equal $1,529 in tax savings.

Your tax dependents may also qualify you to claim tax credits, or increase the amount of credit you're eligible to claim. Here's a short list of tax credits for taxpayers with dependents.

Child Tax Credit

The child tax credit provides a tax credit of up to $2,000 for each qualifying dependent child under the age of 17. Unlike tax deductions, which reduce your taxable income, tax credits lower your tax bill dollar for dollar. You may be eligible to receive the child tax credit if your adjusted gross income is not more than $200,000 ($400,000 if filing jointly); you may receive partial credit if your income exceeds the IRS limits. To qualify for the child tax credit, each child you claim must have their own Social Security number.

Additional Child Tax Credit

The additional child tax credit allows you to receive up to $1,600 of your child tax credit as a refund if the amount of your credit exceeds your total tax bill. Here's how it works: If you have three qualifying children, you can claim $6,000 as a child tax credit. If your total tax liability for the year is only $4,500, the additional child tax credit may enable you to zero out your $4,500 tax bill for the year and receive $1,500 as a refund.

Child and Dependent Care Credit

The child and dependent care credit provides a credit for 20% to 35% of up to $3,000 in qualified work-related care expenses ($6,000 for two or more dependents). Translation: If you pay $3,000 in child care expenses in 2023, you might receive a tax credit of $600 to $1,050—twice that if you have two or more dependents. You must meet specific qualifications for dependents, care and income limits, outlined in IRS Publication 503.

Credit for Other Dependents

If you have dependents who don't qualify for the child tax credit, they may be eligible for a tax credit of up to $500 instead. To be eligible for the credit for other dependents, your dependents can be any age, but must have a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number and be claimed as a dependent on your tax return.

Earned Income Tax Credit

Although you don't need a dependent to claim the earned income tax credit, you might be eligible for a larger credit if you have one or more dependents. Low- to moderate-income taxpayers may receive up to $600 as single filers; $3,995 with one qualifying child; $6,604 with two qualifying children; and $7,430 with three or more qualifying children, depending on income.

The Bottom Line

If you provide support to your children, grandchildren, family members or others in your household, you may be able to claim them as dependents and save a few dollars on your taxes. However, make sure you've considered all of the IRS requirements for claiming dependents before you file. Feel bogged down with details? You can use the IRS' interactive tool to help you determine whether your dependents qualify.