Head of Household? Do You Have to Claim a Child as a Dependent?

The Head of Household filing status can mean a lower tax rate and higher standard deduction than a single taxpayer.

Many people who are claiming this filing status wonder if they have to claim a child as a dependent on their return in order to qualify.

The definition for this filing status is very specific – you either meet all of the criteria, or you don’t – and you must be living with a “qualifying person” for more than half the year in your home in order to be considered the head of household. If you can claim a child as your dependent, they may meet the criteria for being a “qualifying person” in the eyes of the IRS.

General Criteria for Head of Household

According to the IRS, you can file as head of household when all of the following apply:

  • You are unmarried or “considered unmarried” on the last day of the year
  • You paid more than half of the cost of keeping up your home for the entire year
  • A “qualifying person” lived with you in your home for more than half the year, except for temporary absences such as school. If the qualifying person was a dependent parent, they do not have to live with you.

Qualifying Person Criteria

The qualifying person you list on your tax return must have lived in your home for more than half the year.

Relatives such as children of a dependent do meet the criteria for being a “qualifying person” so you may not have to claim your own child as a dependent to meet the requirements for this filing status. The IRS just needs proof that you served as the primary caretaker of a “qualifying person” – not necessarily your own child – for at least half the year.

Remember that the qualifying person could also be an adult who only lives with you for a part of the year. There is no residency requirement for children, grandchildren, siblings, and parents but these individuals must have lived with you for more than half the year.

So, in some situations, it is possible that a child who is a dependent still does not qualify you for the Head of Household filing status.

Special Rules

There is a special rule for separated parents. Married taxpayers who are separated or estranged from their spouse can file as Head of Household as long as they meet the following five criteria:

  • They file a separate return
  • The taxpayer paid more than half the cost of keeping up their home for the tax year
  • Either spouse didn’t live in the same home during the last 6 months of the tax year
  • The home served as the main home of your child, stepchild, or eligible foster child for more than half the year
  • Either spouse will be able to claim an exemption for the child. Individuals meet this test if they cannot claim the exemption because a noncustodial parent can claim the child under rules for children of divorced or separated parents
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