Are you a dependent or an adult? Here’s what that means for stimulus checks

November 3, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


Find out if you’re eligible to get a stimulus check on your own, or if you are claimed as a dependent.

Angela Lang/CNET

At age 18, you’re old enough to vote, get a driver’s license, enlist in the military, attend college and get married. But when the first round of stimulus payments went out in March, most young American adults weren’t eligible to receive a check of their own — or any money at all. An estimated 13 million young people aged 17 to 24 who were claimed as dependents were excluded from qualifying for a stimulus payment. 

The latest stimulus proposal from the White House includes a second stimulus check of up to $1,200 for eligible adults, and $1,000 for qualifying child dependents. The House of Representatives passed a proposal (which some call the Heroes Act 2.0) that includes $500 in stimulus money for any person claimed as a dependent, regardless of age. But that doesn’t mean that every young adult is qualified to receive an individual check. And we won’t know what the final bill actually includes until it gets passed. 

All of this may leave you wondering when it’s possible for someone under age 25 to become eligible for stimulus money, either as a dependent or independently. It’s tricky, but we’ll break down what happens if you’re a student, if you live on your own and have a job, if you’re in the military, if you’re part of the SSI or SSDI programs, if you’re married or a parent or if you’re in a child support situation

We also address how some young adults can retroactively get the original stimulus payment of up to $1,200. (We’ve got a tool to help you calculate how much stimulus money you could get, too.) And here are the most important things you should know about stimulus checks right now.

Are you considered a dependent or an adult? Here are the IRS’ eligibility terms

The first stimulus payment sent out under the March CARES Act allocated up to $1,200 for qualifying American adults, and $500 for the dependents listed on their 2019 tax returns
— so long as they were age 16 or younger. 

To qualify for your own stimulus check, you needed to have filed your 2019 taxes independently, which means no one else claimed you on their taxes as a dependent. You also had to have an adjusted gross income of under $75,000 to receive the full amount of $1,200. (The sum decreases as your AGI goes up, and if you made over $99,000, you weren’t eligible for a check.)

There are two different sets of rules for who counts as an adult or a dependent under current tax law, according to Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

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One is the support test. If you’re unmarried, you don’t claim children as your own dependents, your parents provide you with financial support equal to or greater than half of your annual income and you made less than $4,200 in 2019, then your parents can still claim you as their dependent. Another is the residency test: If you’re a full-time student under the age of 24 who resides with an adult taxpayer more than half of the year (unless you’re living on a college campus), you can be claimed as a dependent, no matter how much money you make. 

Why were young adults excluded from the first stimulus bill?

People aged 17 through 24 were excluded from the CARES Act because the bill was based on a tax code definition of “child” that states a “qualifying child … has not attained age 17.” That means even 17- or 18-year-old high school students who clearly lived with a parent or guardian were excluded as dependents and weren’t counted for a $500 addition to the family check. 

The reason for this age cutoff has to do with the child tax credit, established in 1997, which allows parents to receive up to a $2,000 tax refund for each child under the age of 17 each year they file. We can only speculate as to why this definition hasn’t been expanded to include young adults, but the reason is probably the additional cost to the federal government of extending the credit to more people, Holtzer said. 

Will 17- to 24-year-olds be eligible to receive a second stimulus check?

It depends. If you became financially independent in 2020, and you file your 2020 tax return in spring 2021 independently, you’ll receive the first stimulus check of up to $1,200 sometime in 2021, Holtzer said. This could be the case if a second check passes, too. All you have to do is file your tax return for 2020, and meet the regular eligibility criteria for a stimulus payment. 


College students under age 24 may still be claimed as dependents by their parents or guardians.

Angela Lang/CNET

If you’re filing taxes independently, the amount of money you would get in a second stimulus payment would depend on your adjusted gross income, which you can also find on your taxes. Check out our story on how to calculate how much money you could get in a second check

But if a parent or guardian claims you as a dependent on their taxes, you won’t get a check of your own. Because another stimulus check hasn’t been approved, we don’t know exactly how much money would be allotted for dependents. 

However, both the Republican-backed HEALS and the Democratic-backed Heroes acts provide stimulus money for dependents, including college students and adult dependents: $500 per dependent, with no cap on the number of dependents who could receive that money. 

So if you’re in that 17-to-24 age range, you would likely count toward your parent or guardian’s stimulus payment, though you wouldn’t see a check paid out individually to you.

What happens if someone claims you as a dependent on taxes, but you work or go to college? 

Even if you work or go to college full-time (or both), you still count as a dependent if you meet either the support test or the residency test mentioned above. Basically, if you rely on your parents or guardians for more than half of your financial support, if you made less than $4,200 in 2019 or you’re a full-time student under age 24 who resides with a parent or guardian while not in school, or both, you likely still meet the requirements to count as a dependent. 

However, dependents still have to file tax returns, too. Income for dependents falls into two categories: earned income (money earned from working) and unearned income (money earned from investments like the stock market). Those requirements for filing are based on income, so if dependents are receiving either earned or unearned income, they or their parents will need to file a tax return for them.

What if you’re an emancipated minor? 

If you’ve been emancipated from your parents by a court or through marriage (state laws apply in both cases), you likely wouldn’t count as anyone’s dependent (assuming you provide more than half of your own financial support and don’t live with your parent or guardian anymore), and would file taxes independently. So you’d be eligible for your own stimulus check if you met the requirements. 

What if you’re currently serving in the US Armed Forces?

If you’re age 17 or older and have enlisted in the US Armed Forces, you’re considered emancipated from your parents or guardians and would file taxes independently. Therefore, you would be eligible for your own stimulus check if you met the requirements. 

What if you’re part of the SSI or SSDI program?

If you’re a young person who is part of the Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability Insurance program, things can get complicated when it comes to stimulus payments. Here are three different circumstances people who receive these benefits may face, and how it might work for you, according to Holtzblatt: 

  • You are a full-time student and live with your parents for more than half the year (you’re considered to be living at home even if you live in a dorm part of the time). You could be claimed as a dependent by your parents, and therefore would not be eligible for a stimulus payment under the CARES Act.
  • You are not a student, but receive more than half of your support/living expenses from your parents or others (like grandparents). If you meet certain other criteria, the person providing support could claim you as a dependent, and therefore you would not be eligible for a stimulus payment under the CARES Act.
  • More than half of your support/living expenses is paid by your SSI or SSDI check. As long as you are not a full-time student or living at home, you cannot be claimed as a dependent, and thus would be eligible for a stimulus payment under the CARES Act. If that was the case for you, you should have received your first check automatically. 

Another question we don’t have the answer to is, how extensive was the IRS’s verification process for eligibility? The agency knew who received Social Security benefits, at least as of a certain date. But we don’t know if the IRS was able to identify who among those people was a dependent of another taxpayer when the payments were distributed, Holtzblatt said. 

Find out more about how SSDI and SSI impact stimulus payments here.

What if you’re married or have a child?

If you’re under age 24 but are married or have a child of your own whom you claim as a dependent, you’re considered independent by the IRS. Therefore, you’d be eligible for your own stimulus check if you met the requirements. 

What if you’re paying or receiving child support?

Typically, the custodial parent is the one who claims the child on their taxes, while the noncustodial parent pays child support. There are some cases where your stimulus check may have been garnished to help pay your child support. If you owe more than $150 in overdue child support (or “arrears”), your state may reserve the right to garnish some or all of your first stimulus check, based on how much you owe. If you’re owed child support, you may receive money garnished from your child’s other parent, though it may take a while to get to you after it is processed by the state. 

For parents who have joint custody, it’s possible that both can get an extra $500 per child dependent as part of their check. Find out everything you need to know about stimulus checks and child support here

For more, find out if you’re qualified for a second stimulus check and when you could expect a second stimulus check. If you still haven’t gotten a first stimulus check, you can track the status of your stimulus check, learn how to report your missing check to the IRS and find possible reasons why your stimulus check still hasn’t arrived

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