Unmarried with Children – Head of Household

Originally published in the Cedar Street Times

March 8, 2013

Article on Unmarried People Living Together with Children

I cannot write the title of this article without thinking about the 80s and 90s sitcom, Married with Children, about a dysfunctional American family starring Ed O’Neill, Katey Sagal, David Faustino, and Christina Applegate.  With all the problems the Bundy family had in its 11 years on television, one thing they did not have to deal with were tax determinations when you are unmarried with children!

When I speak of unmarried people, I am not referring to divorced individuals, but people who have never been married.  Different rules apply to divorced and legally separated individuals, and I am not speaking from that perspective.

Many questions arise about who gets to claim dependency exemptions, child tax credits, head of household filing status, dependent care expenses, etc. in situations where unmarried people are living together with children.  This article could not begin to scratch the surface of the issues that exist as there are so many situations that could yield different tax results. In this issue I am going to focus on the head of household filing status.

For an unmarried individual to claim head of household, he or she has to maintain a household for more than half the year that is the principal residence of an unmarried qualifying child (or qualifying relative) for dependency exemption purposes.

A qualifying child is someone who must generally be under 19 (24 if full-time student).  The person must also be your child, step-child, sibling, step-sibling, or a descendant of any of these, or an adopted or foster child.  The child cannot provide over half of his or her own support, and the child cannot file a joint return.

Unmarried parents often both meet the criteria to consider a shared biological child a qualifying child, and then they can decide who will claim the qualifying child for the dependency exemption.  (If they cannot decide, tie-breaker rules exist.)  Whoever claims the child as a dependent gets the child tax credits, credit for child and dependent care expenses, exclusion for dependent benefits, earned income credit, and the possibility of filing as head of household.  You cannot split up the benefits between parents.

If there is more than one shared biological child, one parent may be able to claim one child as a dependent and the other may be able to claim a different child as a dependent.  Or maybe one or both have children from prior partners that live with them and could qualify them as well.  (Side note: if unmarried person A earned less than $3,800 (2012) and lived for the entire year with unmarried person B in the household maintained by B, then A could be a dependent of B as a “qualifying relative,” as well as any of A’s children that lived with A and B and are supported by B.  This also qualifies B for head of household.)

Let us assume both unmarried people living together each have a qualifying child.  Can they both claim head of household?  If their households are maintained in separate dwellings, the answer is almost always yes.  But what if they live under the same roof?  Can you maintain separate households in the same house?

The answer to this depends on whether they are acting as a family unit or not.  IRS Chief Counsel Memorandum SCA (Service Center Advice) 1998-041 addresses this issue and basically says that all facts  and circumstances are considered, and if you are conducting your lives like a single family, then only one individual can file with the head-of-household status, and the other must file single.   But if you are basically like roommates sharing dwelling costs (but not bedrooms!), and lead separate lives with your own respective children, then you could be considered as each maintaining your own household, and then both people can file as head of household.  If you share a biological child as well, it will be nearly impossible for you to make this argument.  But never say never!

Prior articles are republished on my website at www.tlongcpa.com/blog.

IRS Circular 230 Notice: To the extent this article concerns tax matters, it is not intended to be used and cannot be used by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law.

Travis H. Long, CPA is located at 706-B Forest Avenue, PG, 93950 and focuses on trust, estate, individual, and business taxation. He can be reached at 831-333-1041.

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