Can You Claim Someone In Prison on Your Taxes?

The thought of going to prison is enough to scare anyone. For a teenager, it can be absolutely terrifying and if you are the parent of a child facing jail time, it can leave you feeling helpless and confused.

Tax Court Ruling

In October of 2002, a mother of two found herself in tax court for claiming both of her children as dependents on her taxes. The issue was whether or not both of her sons qualified as eligible dependents.

She was allowed to claim one son as a dependent because he had lived with her the entire year and she had been his only source of support. Even though she had given money to the other son all year, he was not eligible to be claimed on her taxes.

The problem was that the other son had been convicted of vehicular manslaughter a few years earlier and was serving a 15-year prison term. He had been in prison the entire year that she had claimed him as a dependent.

Though she had not been required to send money to him, she had been sending him money every other week voluntarily so that he could buy things not provided by the prison. She didn’t realize that the government would consider this money a gift that could not be claimed on her taxes.

She would have also had to prove that the money she had sent to her son provided more than half of his support for the year. She was unable to provide the proof needed so the court ruled that she could only claim one of her sons as a dependent for that year.

Eligible Dependents

The IRS has strict guidelines on who qualifies as an eligible dependent. Some of these are listed below.

  • Age – the child must have been under the age of 19 at the end of the year. Or in some states, under the age of 24 if they are a full-time student.
  • Relationship – the child must be the taxpayer’s son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, brother, sister, grandchild, niece, nephew, or an adopted child.
  • Support – the child must not have provided more than half of their own support for the year.
  • Citizenship – the child must be a U.S. citizen, a U.S. national, or a U.S. resident alien.
  • Residence – in most cases, the child must have lived with the taxpayer for more than half of the year.

Getting Money into your Commissary

Prisons across America provide only the basic necessities to their inmates. For anything beyond these basic necessities, inmates have to go to the commissary and they will need money.

A commissary is like a store inside the prison that sells various products like clothes, snacks, soap, shampoo, books, magazines, televisions, and radios. They also sell pens, paper, envelopes, and stamps.

Some facilities will give paper, envelopes, and stamps to those who can’t afford them, but not all will. These items can be very important to someone stuck on the inside, especially if they are serving a long term.

Commissary day is usually only held once a week and only inmates with money in their account get to enjoy it. As you can imagine this causes some of the less fortunate to become jealous and often results in items being stolen.

There are only three ways for an inmate to have money in their commissary account.

  1. Working in prison for very little pay.
  2. Some sort of trust fund, inheritance, or legal settlement.
  3. Someone on the outside is sending them money.

Sending money to an inmate can vary from state to state. It depends on whether it’s a jail, prison, or federal prison. Federal prisons and some state-level prisons now have central banking systems in place.

In these facilities, you can deposit money through the lobby or a kiosk in the lobby. Some facilities will allow you to send a postal money order made payable to the inmate and sent to their institution’s mailing address.

Now many states are switching to electronic banking systems. This allows friends and family members to send the money online. This method is becoming very popular because it is more accurate and less work for the staff.

You have to be on the inmate’s visitation list to send money at some facilities and some have a $200 limit. If you are wanting to get money to a friend or family member in prison, it can be done. Just don’t try to claim it on your taxes.

Prison Jobs

Many prisons have work programs and those that do offer them want every able-bodied prisoner working. Unfortunately, there are not always enough jobs to go around. Here is a list of jobs offered at some facilities.

  • Prison-support – typical prison-support jobs are cooking, cleaning, doing clerical work, doing laundry, or performing maintenance chores.
  • Agriculture – at facilities with this option, inmates do things like fieldwork, raise livestock, or help maintain farm equipment.
  • Manufacture – at facilities with this option, inmates make signs or license plates, rebuild computers, make furniture, sew, process food, or do metal fabrication.

Some states pay prisoners a very low wage for their work, but most states do not pay them at all. Prison jobs can help inmates develop a good work ethic and learn new skills that will help them seek gainful employment once they are released.

Certain jobs like car maintenance, construction, carpentry, plumbing, and welding are in high demand and can cause a lot of competition among the inmates. Whether these facilities pay the inmates or not, learning these trades will help them in the future.

Kids Behind Bars

The traditional rule is anyone under the age of 18 is considered a juvenile and will be tried in the juvenile court system. Age 14 is considered the minimum age to be tried as an adult but the rules vary from state to state.

The decision to try a juvenile as an adult is usually based on their record and the seriousness of the crime. In cases of rape or murder, they are more likely to be tried as an adult. Once a juvenile has been tried as an adult, they will be tried as an adult in the future no matter what the crime is.


  1. How old are most juveniles in the prison system? 17 years old with around 12k followed closely by 16-year-olds.
  2. Are juvenile offenders younger than 13 placed in facilities with older teen offenders? Although less than one-fifth of facilities held under-13 offenders with older teens, they held 96% of all under-13 offenders.
  3. Are violent and non-violent juvenile offenders held together? Most facilities held a mix of both violent and non-violent offenders.
  4. How many juveniles age 17 or younger are held in state prisons? At the end of 2017, there were less than 1k juveniles age 17 or younger held in state prisons.


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