The IRS dependent rules are complicated, particularly given that they are somewhat inconsistent with their head-of-household rules (filing status). In general, the IRS categories dependents under two categories:
- Qualifying child.
- Qualifying relative.
In all cases, several other conditions must be met:
- The person must be a citizen of the United States, a U.S. national, a U.S. resident, or a resident of Mexico or Canada. If your girlfriend is any of the above, she meets this test. If she is a foreign citizen, for example an exchange student from France, the answer is going to be no.
- The dependent must not be claimed by any other person, including that person herself. Since your girlfriend is not filing, in this example, she is not claiming herself. If however she has parents claiming her, that will cause the IRS to flag your exemption as an error.
- Your dependent cannot be filing a joint return with another person.
Qualifying Child Rules
- The child may be your son or daughter, or your stepchild, eligible foster child, or adopted child. They may also be your brother or sister (half or full), stepbrother, or stepsister. The child of any of those qualifying persons may also be considered as a qualifying child. So for example, if you had a grandson, he would qualify, just as your son would.
- The child must be under the age of 19 or a full-time student under the age of 24.
- The child must live with you for more than half the year, except in several special cases.
- You must provide more than half of the support for your child financially.
- No one else may be claiming your child in order for you to claim him or her.
“Relative” is an incredibly loose term as used by the IRS. This is where a lot of the confusion stems from when it comes to people who are not actually related to you by blood. When we think of relatives, we think of our parents, grandparents, children, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and cousins. But technically a girlfriend or boyfriend or a housemate can qualify as a “relative” if he or she meets all the same tests.
- The person must live with you for the entirety of the year or be on the list in Publication 501 of 30 types of relatives under the heading “Relatives Who Do Not Live with You.”
- You must provide more than half of the financial support for the relative for the entire year.
- Unlike a qualifying child, who may be employed, a qualifying relative must be unemployed or make under $3,900 in gross income for the entire year. Why this amount? Probably because it is close to the amount of a standard deduction. Basically, if the person makes this much, the IRS assumes they have managed to alleviate the financial burden they are exerting on you. If not, the IRS will alleviate it through the exemption.
- No one else may be claiming the person, and they may not be filing jointly with someone else.
If you have any doubts about whether the person you want to claim as a dependent qualifies as a child or relative, the best way to find an answer is to use the IRS’s online tool Who Can I Claim as a Dependent? This tool will walk you through the qualification questions screen-by-screen. Simply input the correct information, and the tool will tell you at the end whether your person qualifies or not. Good luck getting the maximum refund from the IRS.