by Brette Sember
As if taxes weren’t complicated enough, being a divorced parent adds another wrinkle to the process. As we inch towards April 15th, let’s take a look at how divorce might affect your tax return:
Claiming Child Exemptions
At this time of year, I get a lot of questions about the dependency exemption for children and which parent gets to claim it. Your divorce decree may specify how this exemption is to be taken. Some parents alternate years. Sometimes, one parent always gets it. So, first check your divorce decree and follow what it orders. You are permitted to change this, however, if you both agree to do so. You may be in a situation where one parent earns a lot more than the other this year, and so the exemption will be of more value to that parent. (Always check with your tax preparer to find out if and how you will benefit from taking the exemption.) If you want to shift the exemption to the other parent, there is an IRS form that allows you to do so.
Mind the IRS Default Rule
If your divorce decree does not specify which parent gets the exemption, the IRS does. According to the IRS, the parent who has the child for the most nights in the year is the parent entitled to take the exemption. Period. It has nothing to do with who pays child support or how much is paid or what kinds of expenses the child has. This is the default rule to follow.
Consider the Head of Household Status
Head of household status is separate from the dependency exemption. Even if your ex takes the dependency exemption, you may qualify for head of household if your child lived with you more than half the time, you paid more than half of your household expenses, and you are unmarried. As always, check with your tax preparer to make sure you qualify.
MSAs and HSAs Have Different Rules
Although the IRS has a hard and fast 50%-rule for the dependency exemption, it is possible for both parents to claim children for the purposes of Medical Savings Accounts (MSAs) and Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). If you have one of these employer-provided benefits, check with your tax preparer about claiming your child.
Brette McWhorter Sember is a retired family attorney and mediator and nationally known expert about divorce and parenting after divorce. She is the author of The Complete Divorce Handbook (Sterling), The Divorce Organizer & Planner(McGraw-Hill), How to Parent With Your Ex: Working Together for Your Child’s Best Interest (Sourcebooks) and No-Fight Divorce: Spend Less Money, Save Time, and Avoid Conflict Using Mediation (McGraw-Hill). Her web site is www.BretteSember.com.