Father's Rights to Claim Child on a Tax Return

by Wilhelm Schnotz
The IRS applies straightforward tests to determine if a father can claim a child.

Real-world applications of family law are filled with gray areas; at least tax law is relatively straightforward, as the Internal Revenue Service maintains several tests that determine which parent can claim a child on a tax return. Under these tests, a father’s rights are considered equally against a mother’s when determining who gets a tax advantage, though all determinations are made on the basis of support and finance, not which role the parent plays.

Dependency and the Residency Requirement

A child may be claimed as a dependent on only one tax return each year, and unmarried parents or those who are married and file jointly must determine who claims each child -- in most cases, it’s the custodial parent. The IRS’ residency test allows the parent with whom the child spends most nights out of the year to claim her as a dependent. If the father doesn’t hold primary custody of a child, he can’t claim the child as a dependent in most cases, regardless of any other financial arrangements that are spelled out in his custody agreement.

Equal Time with Both Parents

Sometimes, a child may spend an equal amount of time with each parent throughout the year, through joint custody agreements or other circumstances. The residency test doesn't apply when a child lives with each parent equally, but the child still can’t be claimed by both parents either. The IRS grants the dependency exemption to the parent with the highest adjusted gross income. A father may need to confer with his child’s mother in these situations to determine which parent qualifies to claim their child as a dependent.

Noncustodial Parents Claiming Dependency

In some cases, a noncustodial father may be able to claim his child as a dependent, but he's got to meet four requirements to do so. The parents must have lived apart the last six months of the year or be legally separated. The child must receive at least half of his support from the parents and must be in custody of more than half the year. The noncustodial parent must submit a Form 8332 -- signed by the custodial parent -- that grants the noncustodial father the right to claim his child as a dependent. In turn, the mother can’t claim the child.

Child Support and Taxes

Fathers who pay child support don’t automatically qualify to claim their children as dependents. The right to claim a dependent hinges on the residency test or requirements for noncustodial parents. Fathers who make child support payments can’t claim the payments as a tax deduction if they’re characterized as child support payments. However, if they’re structured in a divorce agreement to characterize them as family support payments or alimony, they may be deductible.

About the Author

Wilhelm Schnotz has worked as a freelance writer since 1998, covering arts and entertainment, culture and financial stories for a variety of consumer publications. His work has appeared in dozens of print titles, including "TV Guide" and "The Dallas Observer." Schnotz holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Colorado State University.

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