Which Parent Claims the Child Care Tax Credit?

Unmarried parents: Don't overlook this benefit in Ohio

By Doug Mentes, Esq. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 28, 2023

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There are many income tax benefits for parents of younger children. If the parents are unmarried or divorced, however, these benefits must be split between the two in some way.

Unfortunately, court orders do not often designate which parent receives the tax benefits. And if the court order does designate which parent receives the federal income tax benefit, the order may not meet Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules.

One lesser-known income tax benefit is the child and dependent care credit, a tax break for expenses paid toward work-related child care.

A parent claiming the credit may receive between 20 percent and 35 percent of their work-related child care and daycare payments. No more than a maximum of $3,000 in expenses for one child or $6,000 for two children can be claimed—but this allows for a credit as high as $600 to $1000 for one child, and twice that for two.

The Custodial Parent Gets the Credit

An unmarried parent taxpayer must file a income tax return that meets the requirements of the federal tax code for taking the child tax credit. One requirement is that tax fil claiming the credit must be the “custodial” parent under IRS rules. The custodial parent, of the qualifying individual, is the parent with whom the child lived for the greater number of overnights during the tax year.

A child is treated as living with a parent for a night:

  • If the child sleeps at that parent’s home—regardless of whether or not the parent is present
  • If the child is in the company of the parent, say, if they’re on vacation
  • There is an exception available for a parent who works at night

If the child lived with each parent for an equal number of overnights throughout the year, the custodial parent is the parent with the higher adjusted gross income.

For a “Qualifying Person”

The child for whom the child care expenses are claimed must meet the definition of a “qualifying child” under federal tax rules.

The qualifying child is a child who was 12 years of age or younger (with some rare exceptions) when the child received the care. They must also be the parent’s “dependent,” or one for whom a parent can claim an exemption.

Parent Must Have Earned Income

Another requirement to claim the child care tax credit is that the claiming parent (and their spouse, if filing jointly) must have earned income during the year. A tax preparer should consult the IRS publication for what earned income will qualify them under the law. However, earned income does not include:

  • Workers’ compensation payments
  • Pensions or annuity payments
  • Social security benefits
  • Interest and dividends
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Scholarships or fellowship grants

Child Care Costs Must Be Work-Related

To qualify, the child care costs incurred must have been incurred to allow a parent (and their spouse, if you file taxes jointly) to work or seek work—child care incurred for date nights, will not qualify. The work can be part-time or full-time, and can be self-employment. While child care costs can be included for periods of time a parent is looking for work, if the parent doesn’t find a job and earns no income for the tax year, they can’t take this credit.

Parents may want to consult with one another to determine who will claim the child care tax credit amount. If there is a dispute over the credit, the parents may need to go to court to resolve the dispute. Parents in this situation should seek out an experienced Ohio family law attorney to discuss their options.

For more information on this area, see our overviews of family law, divorce, and mediation and collaborative law.

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