8 Best Tax Tips for Single Parents

Unfortunately, there's no specific single parent tax credit.

Filing taxes can be a nuisance for anyone, especially busy single parents. The good news is that that there are tax breaks that benefit single parents, but taking advantage of the savings requires following IRS rules — and those rules are complicated. Here’s what you need to know about some of the most common child tax topics for single and divorced parents, plus tax tips for single moms and dads and answers to the biggest tax questions for single-income families.

What Is the Average Tax Return for a Single Mother or Father?

The amount of a single mom tax return or a single dad tax return will depend on a number of factors, but the average American received a refund of $2,895 in 2017, according to IRS data. There’s no specific single mom tax credit or single dad tax credit — but there are many tax breaks for single moms and dads that single and divorced parents can benefit from.

Keep reading to find out the answer to “What benefits can I claim as a single parent?” so you can maximize your single parent tax return.

Read: 10 Commonly Missed Tax Deductions

1. Determine Whether You Can File as Head of Household

“Many parents do not know that the head of household filing status exists, and instead select ‘single’ as [their] filing status,” said Pamela Kornblatt, president of Tax Strategists, a company that provides personalized tax preparation and advice. “The head of household status has many tax benefits, including a higher standard deduction amount.”

Filing as head of household also reduces a single parent’s taxable income. To qualify as head of household, a filer must:

  • Pay more than 50 percent of the household expenses
  • Be unmarried on the last day of the tax year
  • Have their child live with them for more than six months of the year, not including the time the child spends at school

A single parent who has more than 50 percent custody gets to claim head of household. The other parent, who has less than 50 percent custody, cannot file as head of household.

2. Know Who Claims the Child Tax Credit

Single filers and heads of households who make less than $200,000 a year might be eligible for the child tax credit. For the parent to qualify for the child tax credit, the child must have been under 17 years old at the end of the tax year. The child’s residence and citizenship are also taken into consideration, as he or she must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national or a U.S. resident alien.

Claiming the child tax credit can decrease your taxes by $2,000 per qualifying child, which could equal a premium tax break for single parents who have many qualifying children. When the credit is more than the parent’s tax liability, the parent might receive the extra amount as a tax refund.

Usually, the parent with custody is the one claiming children on taxes, but there are exceptions. For example, if a child spends most of their time at one parent’s house, even if it’s not in the custody agreement, IRS rules might allow that parent to claim the child tax credit.

3. Determine Who Claims the Child and Dependent Care Credit

Only the custodial parent can claim the dependent care credit. Some exclusions do apply, though.

“If a parent works for an employer who provides dependent care benefits, the parent may not be able to claim some or all of the child and dependent care credit,” Kornblatt said. Payment for dependent care does not qualify for the credit if the person who provided the care is one of the following:

  • Any dependent listed on your tax return
  • A parent of the child being cared for
  • Your own child who is 18 or younger

Read: These Tax Loopholes Could Save You Thousands

Amount of the Dependent Care Credit

Dependent care expenses are allowed up to $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children, but only a percentage of those expenses can be claimed. The child care expenses must be for a child 12 years old or younger, so a parent can work or look for work. As for who qualifies as a dependent child, the IRS defines a qualified child as one who is a relative, or foster or adopted child, who is younger than 19 — or 24 if they are a full-time student — or totally disabled, who lives with you for more than half the year, who will not file a joint return, unless the child and the child’s spouse did not have a separate filing requirement and filed the joint return only to claim a refund.

Dependent Care Spending Account

For further tax breaks on dependent care costs, consider enrolling in a Dependent Care FSA. A DCFSA is a benefit account used to pay for eligible dependent care services, including preschool, summer day camp, before- or after-school programs, and child or adult daycare. Funds are withdrawn from your paycheck pre-tax, which can reduce your overall tax burden.

4. Understand How the IRS Treats Child Support and Alimony

Child support is not taxable income. And if a parent paid child support, those payments are not considered deductible.

Alimony, on the other hand, counts as income. The spouse accepting alimony must report all the payments as income when completing tax filing. He or she can, however, increase his or her employer tax withholding to avoid a surprise tax bill at the end of the year. The ex-spouse paying the alimony can claim a tax deduction.

Note that these rules will change for divorces and separations executed after Dec. 31, 2018, as a result of Trump’s tax reform. For couples who divorce or separate after that date, alimony payments will not be deductible for the spouse who makes alimony payments, and they will not be included in the income of the receiving spouse.

5. Claim Tax Benefits for Education

To take advantage of as many tax credits and tax deductions as possible, single parents need to be aware of everything for which they’re eligible. Here’s what you need to know about claiming education credits.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit help defray the cost of post-secondary education, Kornblatt said. Qualifying single parents who are paying for college or other post-secondary education for their children might be able to claim these credits. The American Opportunity Tax Credit offers a maximum annual credit of $2,500 per student; the Lifetime Learning Credit offers a refund of up to $2,000 per tax return.

In addition to other rules specific to each credit, three basic criteria must be met in order to qualify for these education credits:

  1. The parent, the dependent or a third party must pay qualified education expenses for higher education.
  2. An eligible student must be enrolled at an eligible educational institution.
  3. The eligible student must be a dependent listed on the filer’s tax return.

A couple of options are available as tax breaks for parents saving for their children’s futures. “A single parent planning to pay for college in the future can start saving now using an education savings account or 529 plan — both provide tax-related advantages,” Kornblatt said.

Qualified tuition plans — also known as 529 plans — vary from state to state, but the main tax advantage is the same: The earnings are exempt from federal tax when used for qualified education expenses of the designated beneficiary. And generally, this exemption applies to state tax as well. Tuition, fees, books, room and board all fall under the category of qualified expenses. But contributions to a 529 plan are not tax-deductible.

The Coverdell education savings account can be used to pay qualified expenses for elementary, secondary and higher education. Contributions to a Coverdell savings account are not considered deductible, but amounts deposited in the account grow tax-free.

Related: How I Dealt With Money Stress as a Single Parent

6. Determine Your Eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit

Some single custodial parents qualify for the earned income tax credit. Those with earned income below certain levels who file as single or as head of household can earn credits ranging from $3,461 for one qualifying child to $6,431 for three or more qualifying children.

7. Deduct Adoption Expenses

A parent who adopts a child can claim an adoption credit for the fees, legal costs and travel expenses associated with a legal adoption. In addition, adoptive parents don’t have to pay tax on income they get from adoption assistance provided by their employers.

Click to see financial advice from parents who are winning the money game.

8. Take Advantage of Free Tax Return Preparation If You Qualify

When taking on taxes as a single parent, the complex IRS rules can be confusing, but you deserve to maximize your savings and possibly get some money back. Seeking the advice of a tax professional can ensure that you file correctly and receive all of the tax credits that you qualify for.

If you make $54,000 or less, have a disability or speak limited English, you likely qualify for the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, which connects you with a certified volunteer to provide you with free basic income tax return preparation assistance. To locate the nearest VITA site, use the VITA locator tool on the IRS website or call 800-906-9887. Before going, read Publication 3676-B to see what services provided, and check the IRS’s What to Bring page to make sure you have all the required documents and information needed.

Click to see budgeting hacks for single parents.

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Cynthia Measom, Gabrielle Olya and Ruth Sarreal contributed to the reporting for this article. 

About the Author

Morgan Quinn is an experienced personal finance writer and her work has appeared on WSJ.com, Huffington Post and Slate. She is also the former Managing Editor of Mint.com.