California Landmark Cases on Tax Benefits of a Custodial Parent

Between divorced or separated parents, the custodial parent is entitled to claim an income tax exemption for the couple's dependent child. (Int. Rev. Code, 152, subd. (e)(1).) The custodial parent is the parent with whom the child resided for the longest period of time during the taxable year. (Int. Rev. Code, 152, subd. (c)(4)(B)(i).) The noncustodial parent may only claim the exemption if the custodial parent signs a written declaration disclaiming the child as an exemption and the noncustodial parent attaches that declaration to his or her tax return. (Int. Rev. Code, 152, subd. (e)(2).) The Supreme Court in Monterey County v. Cornejo (1991) 53 Cal.3d 1271 (Cornejo) held that Internal Revenue Code section 152 does not "preclude state trial courts from exercising their traditional equitable power to allocate the dependency exemption to the noncustodial parent by ordering the custodial parent to execute a declaration waiving the exemption." (Id. at p. 1280.) "As . . . the dependency exemption provides a financial benefit to the parent entitled to claim it . . . it must be considered in setting child and alimony support." (Id. at p. 1279.) The court may allocate the exemption to the noncustodial parent when such reallocation will further the policy of ensuring sufficient support for minor children. (Cornejo, supra, 53 Cal.3d at p. 1280.) The example provided in Cornejo described the situation where the noncustodial parent fell within a higher income bracket than the custodial parent and, therefore, "the effect of awarding the exemption to the noncustodial parent is to increase the after-tax spendable income of the family as a whole, which may then be channeled into child support or other payments. " (Ibid.) The court of appeal in Rios v. Pulido (2002) 100 Cal.App.4th 359 addressed a different situation where the court found it equitable to reallocate the exemption.