Can you claim an adult child as a dependent?

If you're still supporting your adult children, can you claim them as your dependent?
If you're still supporting your adult children, can you claim them as your dependent?

Perhaps you once imagined your empty-nest years with the same sort of bittersweet emotion you experienced on the first day of kindergarten: a sense of pride as you watch your children walk away, competing with a weepy desire to give them just one more hug before they go. But if you're like many parents of 20-something children who are back at home (or never left), you might also be starting to wonder if those empty-nest years are ever going to materialize at all.

With more and more adult children returning home after college (or living at home while they attend college or enter a tough job market right out of high school), many parents are faced with supporting one or more of their grown offspring well past their 18th birthdays. According to an April 2011 Rutgers University study, about 48 percent of college students who graduated between 2006 and 2010 still rely on their parents for some level of financial support, and recent projections by consulting firm Twentysomething, Inc. indicate that as many as 85 percent of 2011 college graduates will be moving home after commencement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that middle class families will spend $222,360 to raise a child born in 2009 to the age of 17. (The USDA has provided these estimates since 1960 to help set child support and foster care reimbursement guidelines; and you thought they only graded meat!) Of course, this number excludes any college costs (even savings set aside for college during the first 17 years), and as any parent who has raised a child beyond age 17 will tell you, it's the next five years or so that are really the kickers.

So you're still buying your adult children's groceries, helping with their cell phone bills and car insurance, and providing a roof over their heads. (Please tell us you're not still doing their laundry!) But when tax time rolls around, can you claim that adult child as your dependent? In a word: Sometimes. Read on to find out when.