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My friends had a baby last year, and he's turning 8 months by April 15, 2016. The parents are going to file a joint tax return this year. Can they claim their baby as a dependent? Should they consider filing separately? If they claiming him as a dependent, do they need to file a tax return for him too?

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up vote 14 down vote accepted

As long as the baby was born by December 31, 2015, he can be claimed as a dependent by his parents for tax year 2015. He should definitely be claimed as a dependent; it will save them money on their taxes, and there is no reason not to.

The baby does not need to file a tax return, but he does need a Social Security number in order for the parents to claim him as a dependent and claim child tax credits. Often Social Security numbers are applied for at the hospital right at birth, so he might already have one, but if for some reason this was not done, they will need to visit a Social Security office to apply for one.

The question about whether or not a married couple should file jointly has nothing to do with the fact that they had a baby. If they are planning on filing jointly, we don't have any information that would suggest this is a bad idea.

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I don't believe it will matter though this first time as the child was not 'living' with them for more than 6 months in the previous year. At least that seemed to be what I understood last year when doing our taxes (my son was born in October so less than three months). – Matthew Green Jan 28 at 15:37
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@MatthewGreen You can claim the child even if he was younger than 6 months old at the end of the year. See also: IRS Dependents & Exemptions FAQ. You can claim as long as you provided at least half the support for the child. – kingofzeal Jan 28 at 15:42
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@MatthewGreen From the 1040 instructions: "If the person meets all other requirements to be your qualifying child but was born or died in 2015, the person is considered to have lived with you for more than half of 2015 if your home was this person's home for more than half the time he or she was alive in 2015." – Ben Miller Jan 28 at 15:43
    
@BenMiller Does that exception cover the Child Tax Credit as well? That might be what I was thinking of. – Matthew Green Jan 28 at 16:07
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@MatthewGreen If, after looking at last year's return, you find that you didn't get an exemption or credit that you should have gotten, you can file an amended return. – Ben Miller Jan 28 at 16:25

Whether someone needs to file a tax return for a given year is covered in a section at the beginning of each year's Form 1040 instructions, called "Do You Have to File?". Generally, if the income that year is below a certain threshold (this threshold varies depending on filing status, whether the person is claimed as a dependent, and other factors), then the person isn't required to file (though they could still choose to file if they want to).

For a single dependent under 65, they must file if they have $1050 of unearned income, or $6300 of earned income, or their gross income is more than $1050 and more than earned income + $350. If your friend's baby didn't have income for 2015, then the baby won't need to file.

Whether a person needs to file is separate from the consideration of whether the person can be claimed by someone else as a dependent. Some children who are claimed as a dependent nevertheless must file if their income is high enough.

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In addition, parents can include their child's income on their own tax return under certain conditions, including that the child would otherwise be required to file a return and all of his income is from interest and dividends. The advantage, as explained in the IRS link, is that you don't have to go through the trouble of preparing a separate tax return for the child; the disadvantage is that you might end up owing more tax by doing it this way. If the child doesn't need to file at all, that's even better. – Zach Lipton Jan 28 at 8:31
    
@ZachLipton - right. For long term cap gains and dividends, it might be a wash, but where anything hits the ordinary rate, a difference from 10% to 25% would add up fast. A kid's return shouldn't be too tough to do. – JoeTaxpayer Mar 24 at 15:12

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