To Qualify for Head of Household Filing Status, Do I Have to Claim My Child as a Dependent?

For tax purposes, the parameters of head of household status are not always easily understood. For instance, many taxpayers assume that they need to claim children as dependents in order to qualify for head of household filing status. This is not always the case.

Consider this scenario: For children of divorced parents, the custodial parent most frequently is the one who claims the head of household dependency exemption for the qualifying child (the custodial parent is the person with whom the child spent the most nights during the taxable year). However, a noncustodial parent could also claim an exemption for the dependent child if all the four following statements are true:

  1. The parents are divorced or legally separated under a decree of divorce or separate maintenance, are separated under a written separation agreement, or lived apart at all times during the last 6 months of the year, whether they were married or not.
  2. The child received over half of his/her support from the parents.
  3. The child is in the custody of one or both parents for more than half of the year.
  4. One of the following statements is true:
    • The custodial parent signs a written declaration that he or she won’t claim the child as a dependent for the year, and the noncustodial parent attaches this written declaration to his or her tax return. The specifics of that written declaration depend on the year of the divorce decree.
    • A pre-1985 decree of divorce, separate maintenance, or written separation agreement that applies to 2015 states that the noncustodial parent can claim the child as a dependent, provided that the decree or agreement wasn’t changed after 1984 to say the noncustodial parent can’t claim the child as a dependent, and the noncustodial parent provides at least $600 for the child’s support during the year.

If the noncustodial parent meets the four tests above, they would be able to claim an exemption for the child, but not file as head of household. On the other hand, the custodial parent would still be able to file as head of household, even though that taxpayer did not claim the child as a dependent.

For more information on tax matters involving personal exemptions and dependents, contact a CPA or a qualified financial adviser.

March 20, 2017