Tax Tips for Those Caring for a Child with Special Needs

MARCH 17, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 11

We last wrote about income tax issues associated with providing care and support for relatives two years ago — just before tax filing time. Since we’re just a month away from tax time 2014, it’s a good time to review and update.

What’s changed since our 2012 newsletter article on income tax issues? A couple things. But first, let’s take another look at the structure of the personal exemption and medical deductions.

You, as an individual taxpayer, get to claim a personal exemption of $3,900 for 2013 (the tax year you’ll be filing for next month). That means that, in addition to other deductions and tax rate calculations, the first $3,900 of income is tax-exempt. If you are married and filing as a couple, each spouse gets a single exemption.

You get another exemption for each person you can claim as a dependent. The easy ones: your minor children who live with you. In fact, you get to claim an exemption for your children until age 19 or (if they are in school) age 24. There are also rules governing when you claim an exemption for your minor (or student) children who do not live with you, but who depend on you for at least half of their support.

What if your child is over age 24 and still living with you? If they live with you at least half of the time, and you provide at least half of their support, you may still be able to claim an adult child as a dependent. In fact, that will be available for a parent, a sibling, a stepchild or foster child, or any descendant of any of those relatives.

There are actually two completely separate sets of rules about when you can claim a child or other relative as a dependent. The two categories are confusing because of their names: “qualifying child” and “qualifying relative.” A “child” for these purposes could be a parent or other relative (why would they make the terms easy to understand?), and a qualifying “relative” can be a child. So it’s hard to figure out exactly which category your child-or-other-relative fits into, but bear with us — there are some simple rules that will cover most of the situations.

Did your child (or other relative) live with you for at least half of 2013? Did you provide at least half of his or her support? If either of those questions can be answered “yes,” then you might well be able to claim them as a dependent and get that extra personal exemption on your tax return. Is your relative permanently and totally disabled? If so, then the exemption is probably available. The central question in most cases: did you provide at least half of your relative’s support?

A couple rules are still important to understand: your dependent can not also be someone else’s dependent — even their own. If they claim a personal exemption on their own tax return, you can not claim another one. You (and they) should figure out which exemption is more valuable as part of your analysis of whether you provide half of their support.

Note that for income tax purposes all sorts of relatives can be a “child.” Illogically, even your parents can qualify under the “qualifying child” exemption. While you’re reading about the tax terms, keep in mind that they might not make plain English-language sense.

In addition to the personal exemption, there are other tax benefits available to someone who is providing support and assistance for a family member with special needs or high medical costs. If you itemize your deductions, you can claim expenses for medical costs. Once again, be careful about assuming the tax code is using plain language — all sorts of things are possibly included as medical expenses.

For instance, if a doctor tells you that you should modify your home by, say, building a therapy pool or installing air conditioning, you might be able to deduct those costs. It may be necessary to figure out how much the improvements increase the value of your home and make appropriate adjustments — though that is not always required. Improvements to enhance accessibility, for instance, do not need to have an enhanced value calculation. This area is tricky: be sure you consult with your attorney or accountant before claiming a deduction for home improvement or modification.

Another medical deduction that is often overlooked: seminars and conventions where you learn more about care of your child with special needs. Do you go to the annual meeting of advocates for your child’s particular disability? If his or her doctor writes a letter indicating that you can learn better caretaking measures there, you may be able to deduct the cost of travel, registration and incidentals incurred at the seminar (but not food and hotel costs). Check with your tax preparer for details applicable to your particular situation.

Does your child benefit from acupuncture, chiropractic treatment or recognized religious healing? The costs may be deductible. Does your child have a guide dog or other assistance animal? Those costs are deductible — including procuring, training, veterinary bills, even food. How about legal bills for your child’s guardianship or other expenses? Sorry, probably not — unless they are necessary to authorize mental health care.

Back to our beginning question: what has changed since our 2012 article? Two important things, at least:

  1. The personal exemption, $3,700 in 2011 (that was the important figure in our 2012 article), is $3,900 for 2013. It will almost certainly go up again for 2014, which will mean a new number if we repeat this information next Spring.
  2. The deduction for medical expenses required your total deductions to be more than 7.5% of your income two years ago. That figure increased for current tax returns (for 2013): you now have to have deductions for more than 10% of your income in order to itemize at all.

What other income tax advice can we offer for taxpayers who take care of a child or other family member with special needs? There are a few things to look out for:

  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and VA Disability payments are not treated as income at all. That simplifies tax filing (and reduces taxes) for some special needs trust beneficiaries with income from their trusts that might otherwise be taxable.
  • You may be able to claim a credit for the cost of caretakers for your spouse or dependent if the expenses are necessary to allow you to work. Look at IRS form 2441 and ask your tax preparer for more details. Note that this is not a deduction subject to the 10% threshold — this is a tax credit.
  • If you do claim your child with special needs as a dependent in 2014 (that is, on the return you file next year), you will need to be sure to have him or her covered by health insurance — although Medicare or Medicaid will satisfy this requirement if he or she is on either program.
  • Is there a special needs trust in place? It will have specific tax consequences that you need to discuss with your tax preparer and/or your attorney.
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