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Who counts as a dependent for stimulus checks and why that’s the key to more money



When it comes to stimulus checks, who the IRS counts as a dependent can quickly add up.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Guess what? If negotiations pick up where they left off, and America’s next COVID-19 relief bill includes a second stimulus check, the family members who you count as dependents on your taxes could be a major factor in how the IRS could calculate how much money your household would get

For example, a second direct payment — if there is one — could increase the total for child dependents from $500 to as much as $1,000. Another proposal earmarks $500 for dependents of any age,

But who the IRS considers a dependent around tax time and for stimulus checks isn’t always the same definition, which has left some families with smaller stimulus checks than their neighbors. Other potential changes to stimulus check qualifications could also turn the tide in some households’ favor, particularly those with college-age children who don’t make enough money to get their own stimulus check, or older adults, like a parent or grandparent. 

And there are some situations where families or parents with dependents wouldn’t get any money at all, including people who are in child support situations and some complex rules regarding some parents and US citizenship.

Keep reading for everything you need to know about stimulus payments and dependents, and while you’re here, brush up on the top facts everyone should know about stimulus checks. This story updates periodically.

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What is the IRS’ definition of a dependent?

In terms of tax law, a dependent can fall into two categories: a qualifying child or a qualifying relative. They don’t need to be children, or directly related to you, but they do have to meet certain requirements from the IRS. 

To claim a qualifying child as a dependent on your taxes, they must be either younger than 19 years old, or be a student younger than 24 years old at the end of the calendar year. However, if your child is what the IRS calls “permanently and totally disabled,” you can claim them as a dependent no matter their age. 

To claim a qualifying relative, be it a child or an adult, as a dependent, they must meet other criteria from the IRS. This might include an elderly relative who relies on you for care. (Find out more about what older adults need to know about stimulus checks, including those who may be qualifying relative dependents.)

Even if a dependent was claimed on your tax return, only a specific definition of “child dependent” was eligible to count toward the household’s money from the first round of stimulus checks due to the requirements of the CARES Act. However, it’s likely that some requirements will change if another bill is passed. More on this below.

How could the definition of a dependent change for stimulus?

That’s very likely. The first stimulus payment under the bipartisan CARES Act passed in March and included $500 for dependents aged 16 and younger. There was no limit to the number of children who could count as dependents, as long as they were 16 or younger and claimed by the taxpayer on their tax return, according to the Tax Foundation. 

Because another stimulus package has yet to be passed, we don’t know exactly how much money would be allotted for dependents. On Oct. 1, the House passed a new, updated version of the Heroes Act that includes $500 for dependents, and as of Oct. 10, a White House proposal that would include $1,000 for dependents is under consideration but is being contested on both sides of the aisle. Neither proposal is currently law.

How much extra money could a second stimulus check bring for your dependents? 

The short answer is that you can use our calculator tool to estimate how much money you could get in a second check.

The slightly longer answer is that if the definition of a dependent is expanded, you can in theory add $500 for any dependent you claimed in your last tax filing, regardless of age. If the qualification from the Oct. 9 White House proposal makes it into a final bill, the amount could cap at $1,000 per child dependent. 

While we haven’t heard of a cap on how many dependents you could claim for either approach, it’s always possible there could be a set maximum in the final bill. The provision to supply $1,000 per child dependent would benefit families with younger children. We break down the monetary differences between the two approaches here.

Remember, the total amount of money you may 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

Where can you find your dependents listed on your tax return? 

If you filed taxes in 2018 or later, you’ll find your dependents listed on form 1040, US Individual Income Tax Return. In the middle of the first page, you’ll see a box labeled Dependents. Dependents, along with their social security number, relationship to you and whether they qualify for a child tax credit or credit for other dependents, will be listed there. 


Find your dependent on your 2019 tax form 1040.


What if you have more dependents today than you did on your last tax return? 

If a child was born or adopted into your family in 2020 and therefore not listed on your 2019 tax return, you can claim them on your 2020 tax return to get the $500 dependent stimulus payment from the CARES Act sometime in 2021. This would likely be the case should a second stimulus check be approved as well. 

You can also find out if you can claim a child or another relative as your dependent on your taxes with this tool from the IRS

What if you and your spouse share a child, and file taxes separately? 

In this case, a child can still only be claimed as a dependent on one return in a tax year. To find out who should claim the child on their return, check out the IRS information on Qualifying Child of More Than One Person.

What if you’re divorced or legally separated, and share custody of a child dependent? 

Here’s where things get a little tricky. A child can only be claimed as a dependent by one taxpayer for a tax year. Typically, the child counts as the dependent of the custodial parent — the parent who the child lived with for the longer period of time during the year, even if financial support came from the other parent. However, this isn’t always the case. Find out more from the IRS here.

One case that has cropped up has been non-married parents with joint custody who alternate years in which they claim each dependent child (or children) on their tax returns. In that case, both parents were eligible under the CARES Act to receive $500 per child (for a total of $1,000 per child between them both). 

Here’s how that works: If you are a parent who did not claim your child on your 2019 return, when you file your 2020 tax return, you may be able to claim up to an additional $500 per child on that return, if you qualify to claim the child as your qualifying dependent for 2020. 

Bottom line? A parent with 50/50 custody of one or more children who did not receive a $500 payment per child as part of the stimulus package can get that money along with their tax refund after filing 2020 taxes (in 2021), regardless of whether or not the other parent received that payment for the same children in the first round of checks. Because these payments are essentially tax credits, they do not have to be repaid to the IRS, even if both unmarried parents end up with a check for the same children. (You can read our story about how stimulus checks impact child support payments here. And here’s more information from the IRS about the qualifying child of more than one person.)

What happens if your dependent has died?

If a dependent was listed on your last tax return but has since passed away, it’s likely that you were still sent the extra $500, and that they would be included in a second stimulus payment. However, a payment made to someone who died before they received it should be returned to the IRS. You also cannot claim a stillborn child as a dependent, according to the IRS. 

For more, find out if you might be qualified for a second stimulus check and how soon another payment could arrive. If you still haven’t gotten a first stimulus check, you can find out how to claim a missing payment and learn how to report your missing check to the IRS.

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