Stimulus check: Do you count as an adult? Here is the IRS definition6 min read
Once you reach age 18, you’re old enough to vote, get a driver’s license, enlist in the military, attend college and get married. However, when Congress approved the first round of coronavirus stimulus payments 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.
It’s possible that another stimulus bill would change the qualifications (here’s where negotiations stand). But if it doesn’t, young people may still not get their own check for up to $1,200. All may leave you wondering when it’s possible for someone under age 25 to become eligible for stimulus money, either as a dependent or on their own.
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, or if you’re married or a parent. 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 six most important things you should know about stimulus checks.
Are you a dependent or an adult? These 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 return — 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 claims 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.
One is the support test. If you’re unmarried, 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 the 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 17- to 24-year-olds 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 $500 toward 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 young adults be eligible for 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.
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. So if you’re in that 17-to-24 age range, you would likely count toward your parent or guardian’s stimulus payment, however, you wouldn’t see a check paid out individually to you.
The exact details differ: Under the HEALS Act, families would get $500 per dependent, with no cap on the number of dependents who could receive that money. Under the Heroes Act, families would get $1,200 per dependent, for up to three people. Neither proposal is likely to become law.
What if you’re claimed 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, and/or if you are a full-time student under age 24 who resides with a parent or guardian while not in school, you likely still meet the requirements for being 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 a dependent is receiving either earned or unearned income, they or their parents will need to file a tax return for them.
An exception to the rule: Emancipated minors
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 meet the requirements.
What if you serve 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 meet the requirements.
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 who you claim as a dependent, you’re considered independent by the IRS. Therefore, you’d be eligible for your own stimulus check if you meet the requirements.
For more, find out if you’re qualified for a second stimulus check and when you can 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.