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Why it’s important
If you can claim a child as your dependent it's important that you do so because this will decrease your taxable income by $3,600. The rules on dependents may also apply to other benefits such as the child tax credit and the earned income tax credit.
How the IRS defines a dependent child
The IRS has five fairly simple rules for defining whether or not the child is your dependent. First, it must be related to you and second, the child must be under the age of 19 or a full-time student. The child must live with you and you must financially support him or her. Finally, you must be the only person claiming the child. This requirement generally has to do with children of parents who have divorced and there are "tiebreaker rules," that can be found in IRS Publication 501. These rules have to do with parentage, income and residency requirements for claiming a child as a dependent.
The short answer
The short answer to the question of who claims a child as their dependent is that it’s the person or persons with whom the child lived half or more of the year and who provided half or more of the child's support. If the child did not live with you at least half the time and if you did not provide half or more of its support, you cannot claim the child as your dependent. If you do so, this would be considered fraud. In fact, if the IRS computers find that two people have said the same child was their dependent, they will definitely investigate the matter. They will then give the deduction to whosoever is legally entitled to it and take back any money the other person obtained fraudulently.
How to prove the child is your dependent
If the IRS challenges your right to claim the child as a dependent, you will need to first prove that you are related to him or her and then provide copies of medical, school, or social service records to verify that the child lived with you. To prove your support of the child, you may have to provide receipts for clothing, food, medical and dental care, recreation and other items.
If you are in the non-custodial parent, you still may be able to claim the child as a dependent if the custodial parent is willing to complete and sign Form 8332 whereby he or she agrees to release the claim to exemption. You would then have to attach this form to your tax return ever year you want to claim the child as your dependent.
Better safe than sorry
If your child has not lived with you for half a year and if you have not provided for at least 50% of its support, you probably shouldn’t claim him or her as your dependent. As you have read, this could lead to serious problems with the IRS and having problems with the IRS is never a good thing.