There is a lot of noise that goes on in ICU. The people are oddly silent. But the ambient noises ricochet from bay to bay. The beeping, the alarms, the dripping. I remember those sounds as if it were yesterday. I remember looking across the hospital bed and seeing my brothers, one a tatted up career Navy man, the other a giant (compared to me anyway) pick-up driving tech guy, fidgeting, all while standing next to my dad, who earned the nicknamed “Bulldog” honest. And then there was me, even more out of place in my black dress and heels, on the other side.
I wondered for a brief moment, staring at the three of them in that odd mix of noise and quiet, how it was that we could all be so very different and yet, stand there in solidarity as if we were all cut from the same mold.
And the answer, of course, is my mother.
If you read the blog, you already know that my mom is pretty awesome. She has supported me for my whole life – even though I know that she didn’t understand me or my choices. She made me dresses with big crinoline skirts and watched as I played soccer in them. She let me be in pageants even though she realized I had no talent. She drove me to cheerleading tryouts for two years even though my only qualification for cheering was that I was loud (she, on the other hand, had been the captain of her squad). She let me go to residential high school when I was 14 even though I know she wanted me to stay home. She made every amazing birthday cake that I ever had as a kid – from scratch – and yet happily ate the cake I made for her with fish grease (by accident). When I went away to college, something that she didn’t get the chance to do, she made sure that I was settled and sent me care packages. And when I announced I was going to law school hundreds of miles away, she let me go, even though I know that it was super hard for her to imagine me in the “big City up north.” She smiled through the wedding (in a beer hall with a polka band) that I knew wasn’t the one she had dreamed of for me and she cringed when I gave my youngest child a family name (her exact words were “Good Lord, Kelly”). She cheered me on from 500 miles away for my first race (calming me down over the phone for my pre-race panic) and talked me through my bar exam jitters. I’ve called her from the floor of a club bathroom after being dumped; a train station in Cardiff after being robbed and a phone booth in Prague after missing my flight home (it’s a long story) – and even though my adventures were very different from her life, she would calmly remind me that I could get through whatever was happening.
My mom let me grow up believing that I could do anything. She has always been my spirit, that voice inside of my head telling me that I could do it – even if she really didn’t think so or really didn’t want me to do it. And I cannot imagine who I would be without her.
It’s been hard watching my mom get older. She has, in the past couple of years, suffered a stroke and had heart surgery. She’s landed in the ER more times than I care to think about.
And while she has always been the one to take care of me – moving in for nearly a month when I was in my car accident – it is not inconceivable that some day, I’ll be the one taking care of her.
More and more children are finding themselves in a similar circumstances. We are the “sandwich generation” – adults who find themselves in the similar situation of having young children to raise while at the same time, potentially taking care of aging parents.
On the tax side (you knew I’d work tax into this somehow), it’s usually pretty easy to figure whether you can claim the children that you support as your dependent. Generally, for U.S. tax purposes, a dependent must be a U.S. citizen, U.S. resident alien, U.S. national, or a resident of Canada or Mexico (some exceptions apply for adopted children); have a valid tax ID number; and be either your qualifying child or your qualifying relative.
The rules for a qualifying child are pretty straightforward. A person is your qualifying child if that person meets all of these tests:

  • Relationship. The dependent must be your child, stepchild, adopted child, foster child, brother or sister, or a descendant of one of these.
  • Residence. The dependent must have the same residence as you for at least half of the tax year.
  • Age. The dependent must be under age 19 at the end of the tax year; under age 24 and a full-time student for at least five months out of the year; or totally and permanently disabled.
  • Support. The dependent must not have provided more than half of his or her own support during the tax year.
  • Return. The dependent, if married, must not have filed a joint return with his or her spouse.

Of course, caveats and exceptions apply (for example, college students may still be considered dependents even if they live away from home). There are also exceptions for other temporary absences: children who were born or died during the year, children of divorced or separated parents or parents who live apart, and kidnapped children.
But what about your parents? If you take care of your parents, can you claim one or both of those on your taxes?
The answer is a resounding maybe. For tax purposes, you can claim an adult as a qualifying relative if certain criteria are met. Residency is not a requirement to claim a dependent for a parent: your parent doesn’t actually have to live with you since they are related to you (the test is residency or relationship). Other than that, you generally can’t claim an adult who files as independent or is already claimed as a dependent or files as married filing jointly. You have to pay at least half of the person’s expenses/support (note that this is slightly different than the test for your children) and the person must not have more than $3,700 in taxable income; Social Security benefits are excluded from that amount if they are not taxable.
Even if your parent isn’t actually your dependent, there may be other available deductions for tax purposes, depending on the circumstances. Check with your tax pro if you feel that you have expenses that might be deductible on your own tax return. You need to keep super good records, however, since even if it’s for your mom, the IRS still wants to see receipts and invoices (as one son learned recently).
Of course, I get that taking care of your mom isn’t really about the tax breaks – even if you can claim them. We do it because we love our moms – and because they took care of us for all of these years (my mom still takes care of me – she can now remind me to eat and sleep via text). At the end of the day, that is what is most important.
As for my mom? I talk a lot about how we are different but I suspect we are much more similar than I like to think. At least I hope we are. My mom did an amazing job raising a family, taking care of her own mom after a cancer diagnosis and being kind and generous to those she came in contact with. I hope that someday those that know me think that I really am like my mom – even if I never walk a mile in her gold lamé shoes.
Happy Mother’s Day to my mom. (And yes, that’s her picture at the top. Was she a total hottie or what?)

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Kelly Erb is a tax attorney and tax writer.

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