By Divorce.com staff
Updated Jan 20, 2023
Child custody is rarely a perfect 50/50 split, but plenty of co-parents try their best to divide time equally with their little ones. It’s a valuable solution that allows both parents to enjoy time with their children equally, but it may become confusing when tax time rolls around.
There is a significant tax credit for having a child as a dependent. Claiming dependents is easier to navigate when you're married because you can file jointly. When you’re divorced, you file separately. So, where does the child tax credit go?
Here’s what divorced parents should know about claiming a child on their taxes when they share 50/50 custody.
How Does Joint Custody Work?
Joint physical custody is when a child can live with both parents according to an arranged schedule. Each parent will have parenting time with their child. This is a common co-parenting situation following a divorce, and it’s often an ideal outcome because it allows children to grow up with both parents in their lives.
However, joint custody doesn’t always mean 50/50 custody. It can mean that the child will live with one parent during the week and the other over the weekend. One parent may have primary custody, which occurs when the child stays with that parent most of the time. Sometimes time with each parent is closely divided, but it’s rarely an actual 50/50 split.
Some parents decide to create flexible schedules that prioritize a child’s needs. The child may spend most of their time with one parent while attending school and the summer with the other parent. It all depends on what’s best for the child and how the parents can accommodate the child’s needs.
Who Is Supposed To Claim Children as Dependents?
Children are supposed to be claimed as dependents by the parent they live with most of the time. If your custody arrangement is regarded as 50/50, it can be challenging to determine which parent has the child most of the time. It usually boils down to a technicality.
There are 365 days in a year, which is an odd number. It isn’t technically possible for each parent to have a perfectly equal amount of time with the child.
One parent may miss parenting time due to a two-week business trip, giving the other spouse more time. The other parent should claim the child on their taxes in such cases.
What If Custody Was Truly 50/50?
If custody is almost 50/50 and parents can’t decide what to do, the IRS will give credit to the parent with the highest adjusted gross income. This is the option they’ll choose in every case if parents don’t make a decision independently, so it can be helpful to discuss your decision with your co-parent before the IRS forces your hand.
On the surface, this may not seem fair, as the parent with the higher income makes more money yearly. Why would that parent need the tax credit for claiming the child, especially if the other parent may be living paycheck to paycheck?
The answer has to do with tax brackets. A higher income usually means a higher tax bracket, so higher-income parents typically pay more taxes. The IRS child tax credit is the government giving parents.
This kicks both tax returns back to the parents and delays refund processing. It’s important to communicate before you file to avoid misunderstandings, especially if you don’t want to wait a long time for your tax refunds.
If you don’t fix your returns and file them correctly, the IRS will audit at least one of you. They’ll use the tiebreaker rule for adjusted gross income to award the child tax credit to the parent who qualifies under the law.
You can save the hassle of the process by default to the IRS’s tiebreaker rule before filing. They won’t be willing to hear both sides of the story and make a fair determination — they will always use the tiebreaker rule in every situation.
What If One Parent Doesn’t Qualify for a Child Tax Credit?
Some parents may not qualify for a child tax credit or may not receive the maximum amount for a child tax credit, even if they have primary custody of the child. You should ask your tax attorney if you have more questions about qualifying for the credit.
Parents whose main home is outside of the United States for more than half of the year may not qualify for the total amount, even if they spend enough time in the United States to split custody 50/50 with the child's other parent. Parents whose income exceeds a specific threshold cannot claim the child tax credit.
If one parent doesn’t qualify for the tax credit or only qualifies for a reduced tax credit, it makes more sense for the fully eligible parent who qualifies for the tax credit to claim the child as a dependent.
Technically, You Can Decide Who Claims Your Child on Taxes with 50/50 Custody
Although there are legal guidelines and tiebreakers for claiming children as dependents, those guidelines aren’t technically rules. They’re only a suggestion, and the IRS only enforces them if your inability to come to a decision delays the timely processing of your tax returns.
The IRS simply wants to see one parent claim the child, even in joint custody arrangements. They don’t necessarily care which parent it is as long as the other parent doesn’t challenge the decision.
If you and your co-parent can come to a mutual conclusion about who should claim your children on your taxes, you can settle the situation however you see fit. It doesn’t matter who has custody most of the time.
How To Make the Decision
There may be situations where a parent with primary custody has a substantial income, and the parent who gets the child on weekends would benefit from financial help.
If one parent was recently laid off or has encountered a hardship, you can agree between the two of you that the other parent can claim the child on taxes so they can continue to afford to provide a safe and suitable environment for the child during their custody time.
You can also use common sense rules to make the situation more equitable. If you have two children, you can each claim one child. Some parents choose to alternate years for claiming children on taxes. The IRS acknowledges this is a common practice among parents, and there’s no problem with it. It doesn’t raise any red flags for them.
Some parents will come to arrangements where the parent who pays for most of the child’s extracurricular expenses, holiday gifts, and medical care can claim the child.
You can also agree to split the child tax credit, but that’s a verbal agreement between two people. It cannot be legally enforced, and if one person doesn’t hold up their end of the deal, there’s no way to hold them accountable.
As long as the parent claiming the child as a dependent has at least some form of physical and legal custody of the child and the other parent doesn’t oppose or also claims the child, everything is legally sound.
Play by the Rules (or Make Reasonable Rules)
Everything is fine if you and your former spouse agree on who should claim the child on their taxes. You may need the help of a tax attorney if you don’t see eye to eye unless you want to abide by the IRS tiebreaker rule in cases where you can’t agree.
It’s always better to talk through the situation and reach an understanding than to let things fall into the hands of the IRS. Work on communicating with your spouse and come to a compromise you both feel good about.