Every family in America is unique and nontraditional family structures have become so common, you can hardly even call them "non-traditional" anymore. According to the Pew Research Center, about one-third of all kids in the United States live with an unmarried parent, a stat that almost tripled between 1968 and 2017.
If you're living with your boyfriend and child, the question to ask when tax season rolls around is, "Can my boyfriend claim my child as a dependent on his taxes?" By claiming someone as a tax dependent, taxpayers were formerly able to decrease the taxes they owe by claiming a dependency exemption. But because not every family is a living episode of "Leave It To Beaver" – and because U.S. tax laws changed in 2018 – figuring out who qualifies as a dependent and what exactly that means can get more than a little tricky when tax season rolls around.
What Is a Dependent?
Let's go straight to the horse's mouth and take a listen. According to the IRS itself, "a dependent is a person other than the taxpayer or spouse who entitles the taxpayer to claim a dependency exemption." Sure, those are the perks that result from claiming a dependent, but that still doesn't really get to what a dependent actually is.
The IRS leans a bit on the simple side, offering two types of dependents: "Qualifying child" or "qualifying relative." Although a qualifying child is rather strictly defined by the IRS as a "son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister, half brother, half sister, stepbrother, stepsister or a descendant of any of them," the definition of a qualifying relative is broader, opening up the possibility of a boyfriend being able to claim a non-relative child as a dependent.
Before you dive into the boyfriend question, keep in mind that a few situations may disqualify him from claiming your child as a dependent right off the bat. First and foremost, he can't claim a dependent if that dependent is claimed by another taxpayer, such as yourself.
Boyfriends and Qualifying Relatives
Don't let the term "qualifying relatives" throw you off. Claiming a qualifying relative as a dependent doesn't mean that they have to be a blood relative. As such, this situation may apply to your boyfriend and your child, at least under certain circumstances.
To meet the requirements for a qualifying relative, your boyfriend must have lived with your child for the entire tax year. In terms of money matters, your child's annual income must be no more than $4,150 (as of 2018 rates, but you can adjust that rate for inflation to figure out the limit for previous tax years) and your boyfriend must have provided more than half of your child's support during the year. There is no age limit for qualifying relatives. However, your boyfriend cannot claim the child as a qualifying relative if you claim them as a qualifying child.
But there's more than that. If you meet the qualifications of a dependent – i.e. you've lived with your boyfriend for the whole tax year, fall under the annual income requirements and have had more than half of your annual expenses paid by your boyfriend – then he can claim you as a dependent, too. (And vice versa if you're the one providing financial support in the relationship.) This type of situation falls under the qualifying relative category. If your income is so low that you don't have to file taxes, your boyfriend can claim both you and your child as dependents.
One thing to keep in mind, though, is that if your living situation runs contrary to state law, your boyfriend will not be able to claim your child as a dependent, even if all the other qualifications are met. In some states, for example, it's illegal to live together if one person in the couple is still married to someone else. Almost unbelievably – and also almost never enforced – it's technically illegal for unmarried couples to cohabitate in the states of Michigan and Mississippi.
2018 Changes: Child Tax Credit
Prior to the tax year 2018, each dependent you or your boyfriend claimed shaved $4,050 off of your taxable income. Due to the Trump administration's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2018, however, this is no longer the case. Now, claiming a dependent does not offer a deduction for the child whatsoever – in its place, it offers a tax credit. Though the new law eliminates deductions for dependents as of the 2018 tax year, it does not change the definition of a dependent itself.
Instead, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act opts for a child tax credit. This credit reduces the taxes you owe by $2,000 per qualifying dependent. Dependents who don't qualify the child tax credit's full set of requirements can still reduce your tax burden – or your boyfriend's tax burden – by $500 each. The latter is known as a credit for other dependents.
To claim the full child tax credit, the child must be of qualifying age (the child tax credit age limit is 17, as of 2018), living under the taxpayer's roof for more than half of the tax year and related to the taxpayer. So that last bit excludes the boyfriends for the equation.
The good news is, your boyfriend may still qualify for the tax credit for other dependents, which can be claimed on line 12 of 2018's Form 1040. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, this nonrefundable credit applies to qualifying children who are over the child tax credit age limit and qualifying relatives, which are still defined under the same parameters as pre-2018 tax years.
More About Tax Dependents
Whether you're thinking about claiming a dependent for yourself or you're just curious if it's legal for your boyfriend to do so, there are quite a few subtleties, exceptions and disclaimers to dive into when it comes to qualifying dependents.
For one, a qualifying child must live with you or the person claiming them as a dependent for more than half a year. There are two major exemptions to this rule, though. If a child is born during the year but doesn't quite hit the 6 months old mark, they still qualify. In the event that a child dies during the year, the deceased can still be claimed as a dependent for that tax year no matter when they passed away. In cases of legal adoption, an adopted child is always treated as a taxpayer's own child.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act does introduce a few interesting tweaks to dependent tax laws. Although the child tax credit requires qualifying children to have a valid Social Security number, dependents claimed under the tax credit for other dependents do not need to have an SSN, though they must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. resident, U.S. resident alien or U.S. national (so an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, Adoption Taxpayer Identification Number or green card will work). Unless Congress decides to extend the legislation, the credit for other dependents – like most of the TCJA – will expire after December 31 of 2025.
- Pew Research Center: About One-Third of U.S. Children Are Living with an Unmarried Parent
- The Dirty Dozen: 12 Tricky Tax Dependent Dilemmas
- Essence: Whoa! It's Still Illegal for Unmarried Couples to Live Together in Two States
- H&R Block: The New Child Tax Credit
- H&R Block: The Credit for Other Dependents (Formerly Family Tax Credit)
Dan's decade-long experience as a freelance writer and small business owner has seen him contribute to financial publications including Chron.com, Zacks.com, MSN Money, Fortune, Motley Fool and others.