Stimulus check 3: What’s the deal with dependents?


Dependents for stimulus checks and taxes aren’t always the same thing. Here’s how it works.

Angela Lang/CNET

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package proposal includes two ways families with dependents may get more stimulus money, when and if a new stimulus payment happens. Congress needs to pass a new bill one way or another and the total amount your family could receive may depend heavily on the outcome of a current debate to make the third check more targeted.

For the first and second stimulus checks, Congress took a narrow view of which dependents were and weren’t eligible for a payment, and some dependents you listed on your federal taxes may not have made the cut. The reason was a rule governing the first two checks that said no people over the age of 16 who are supported by their family would count toward the household total. That meant older teens, college students, older adults and older or adult children with disabilities that preclude independent living were all left out. However, the preliminary rules around the next stimulus check could change this situation in a big way. 

We’ll go over the new details and bring you up to speed on the stimulus check qualifications for your family — including how to receive any missing stimulus money when you file your federal taxes this year and who the IRS counts as an adult for stimulus checks. This story was recently updated.

Who counts as an eligible dependent for first and second stimulus checks?

The first stimulus payment sent out in 2020 included $500 for dependents aged 16 and younger, which were claimed in the previous round of income taxes (or other paperwork, if you’re a nonfiler). There was no limit to the number of children who could count as dependents, as long as they were 16 or younger.

The $900 billion stimulus law passed in December also defines dependents as those age 16 and younger, leaving out those age 17 and older — including most college students and older relatives. Each dependent counted toward a flat rate of $600 in the family total, with no cap on the number of child dependents claimed. Here’s who counts as an eligible “adult” when it comes to stimulus checks.

Could a third stimulus payment change who counts as a qualified dependent?

Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that includes $1,400 stimulus checks. While Biden hasn’t offered many details on the potential third check, he did say adult dependents would be eligible. This group would include around 13.5 million college students, older adults and children of all ages with certain disabilities. 

The House of Representatives is now expected to begin the process of bringing a third check to a vote next week.

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How else could the third stimulus check change the rules about dependents?

In addition to opening up the definition of a dependent to all ages, Biden’s $1,400 stimulus check proposal also seeks to include all mixed-status families. This could potentially mean that families with noncitizen parents but citizen children (who were born in the US, for example) would be eligible for stimulus money. 

The second check made it possible for families with one citizen parent to receive a payment, and the first stimulus check blocked all families with one noncitizen spouse if they filed jointly, even if they claimed a US citizen dependent. The same restriction applied to a noncitizen head of household who claimed a US citizen child as part of the previous tax return.

How much money could my eligible dependents get with each stimulus payment?

A dependent doesn’t receive their own stimulus check, but they can add funds to the household’s total. Children 16 years and younger who you claimed in your last tax filing added a flat rate of $600 to the household’s second check. That’s $100 more per dependent than in the first round of payments. The total amount of money allocated in any of the three stimulus payments would depend on your adjusted gross income, which you can also find on your taxes.

It isn’t clear how much money a third stimulus check would bring for each dependent. Biden’s proposal doesn’t suggest a total, so it would be up to negotiators of the bill to agree on the financial terms. 

What is the main difference between who counts as a dependent on your taxes and who counts for stimulus payments?

In terms of federal tax regulations, 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 set out by 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. If, however, 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 — either a child or an adult — as a dependent, they must meet other IRS criteria. 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. The same is true for the second round under the $900 billion law: The child dependent must be age 16 or under as of your 2019 tax return to qualify for any payment. 


Find your dependent on your 2019 tax form 1040.


Where can your dependents be found listed on your federal 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. 

What happens if you’ve gained more dependents since 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 or the $600 payment from the new bill sometime in 2021. 

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 custody of a child, but you file your 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 but you split custody of a dependent?

Here’s where things can get confusing. 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 with the first check 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 if you have a dependent of any age who is considered disabled?

This is one area where the qualifications diverge for stimulus checks and taxes. If you have a child who the IRS defines as “permanently and totally disabled,” they can still count as a child dependent on your tax return, regardless of their age. The IRS says your child falls under this category if both of the following apply:

  • “They can’t engage in any substantial gainful activity because of a physical or mental condition.”
  • “A doctor determines the condition has lasted or can be expected to last continuously for at least a year or can lead to death.”

The rule is different for stimulus checks. Children who are disabled and aged 17 years or older, however, are not eligible for the $600 allotted to child dependents, unless they were aged 16 or younger on your 2019 tax return. 

What if your child dependent has passed away?

With the first check, if a dependent who was listed on your last tax return has since died, it’s likely that you were still sent the extra $500, and that they would be included in a second stimulus payment. The same is likely true for the second check. 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, check out what we know so far about a third stimulus check. If you still haven’t gotten your first or second 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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