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Who's a dependent for stimulus checks: New qualifications, how to claim, 2020 babies

Dependents count for more money than before with the third stimulus payments, but not every family qualifies. Here's everything you need to know, including how new tax breaks will bring some families a bigger amount.

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New rules for dependents mean you need to pay close attention to the size of your stimulus check -- so you know if a new payment is coming.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Whether you got your new stimulus check or you're still waiting for your third payment, the rules that bring you $1,400 for each dependent are incredibly important for making sure you get the right amount of money (calculate your stimulus estimate). Dependents rules for stimulus checks are wildly different from the child tax credit, which is worth even more -- up to $3,600 per qualified dependent (here's how much CTC money you could get). 

If you're missing stimulus money for dependents from the first two checks, had a new baby in 2020, are part of a mixed-status citizenship family or are waiting for a plus-up payment adjustment because the IRS has yet to process your 2020 tax return, you'll want to make sure you're read up on every detail so you know if you got your stimulus money, or what to do if you didn't. (Here's how to track your stimulus payment.)

In some cases, even people who are typically nonfilers (like SSI and SSDI recipients and veterans) have to file 2020 taxes to get their full total for dependents (here's how to track your tax refund). In other cases, you may need to initiate a payment trace with the IRS or take action if money is missing. Here's what to know about a fourth stimulus check, 2021 child tax credit qualifications and five ways to save on health care with the new stimulus law. This story was recently updated.

Your dependents qualify toward a third check, with no age restrictions

For the first and second stimulus checks, qualified dependents were defined as anyone age 16 or younger (here's how the first two checks compare with the third). Each dependent counted toward the family total, with no cap on the number of child dependents claimed. That rate was $500 for each dependent as part of the first check, approved in March 2020 as part of the CARES Act, and $600 each for the second stimulus check that was approved and sent in December.

The new American Rescue Plan earmarks $1,400 per dependent of any age, to be included in the checks of their parents or guardians. For the first time, 17-year-olds and adult dependents (anyone 18 or older) are also eligible for a payment. This group includes around 13.5 million college students, older adults, and children of all ages with certain disabilities. 

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How strict income limits disqualify families, even if they have dependents

The new third stimulus check is targeted for families with a certain income threshold. In a change this time, dependents won't bring some families a partial payment, as they did with previous checks -- the income limits are absolute. (See for yourself with our $1,400 stimulus check calculator or learn how to calculate your adjusted gross income here.)

Stimulus check income limits


Qualifies for full $1,400 Doesn't qualify for stimulus check
Single taxpayer AGI below $75,000 AGI of $80,000 or above
Head of household AGI below $112,500 AGI of $120,000 or above
Married, filing jointly AGI below $150,000 AGI of $160,000 or above

Nonfilers may need to file a tax return to register dependents

Though many people automatically received stimulus payments for their dependents, some will need to file a 2020 tax return, per the IRS. This is because the IRS may not have all your dependents on file if you don't usually file a tax return (you're considered a nonfiler) -- for example, if you gained a new dependent in 2020 or if you had a baby. This also applies if you gained a dependent over the age of 16 or an older adult dependent.

You can use the IRS' Free File tool if you make less than $72,000 a year. Once you're on the site, select Choose an IRS Free File Offer to see a list of tax software companies you can use. The software should walk you through how to file your return and the Recovery Rebate Credit Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR for free. The IRS said it's sending "plus-up" payments to individuals and families who are eligible for a larger payment based on their 2020 tax returns, including if they have new dependents.

See more below about how gaining dependents can affect the size of your stimulus payment.

Mixed-status families: Important information you'll want to know

In addition to opening up the definition of a dependent to all ages, the $1,400 stimulus check plan also includes all mixed-status families. This means that families with noncitizen parents but US citizen children are eligible for stimulus money. 

For the second check, families with one citizen parent could receive a payment, whereas the first stimulus check blocked all families with one noncitizen spouse if they filed jointly, even if they claimed a US citizen as a dependent. The same restriction applied to a noncitizen head of household who claimed a US citizen child as part of the previous tax return. Here's what to know about citizenship and stimulus checks.

An expansion to the child tax credit means millions could get even more money

One way families will get even more stimulus money (calculate your child credit total here) is through a temporary expansion of the 2020 child tax credit. Age is critical here: The new CTC rules bring the credit up to $3,600 per child under age 6, and $3,000 per child between age 6 and 17 for qualifying families.

Payments will begin phasing out for individuals who make more than $75,000 and married couples who make more than $150,000. Payments will occur periodically from July through December 2021. Here's what to know about child tax credit qualifications, who is a qualified dependent for the CTC and what parents with shared custody should know.

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Stimulus checks and the child tax credit aim to help lift kids out of poverty.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Do dependents receive their own stimulus checks?

Dependents don't receive their own stimulus checks, but they add funds to the household's total. With the third check, dependents of any age will add up to $1,400 each to the family's check. The total amount of money allocated in the third payment depends on your adjusted gross income, which you can find on your taxes.

If you added more dependents since the last time you filed taxes, will that affect the size of your check? 

Yes. Parents of babies born or adopted in 2020: You can claim dependent benefits from the first two checks retroactively on your 2020 tax return. Because eligibility for the first two stimulus checks was based on your most recent tax return, babies born in 2020 were excluded from their parents' stimulus check dependent benefits. But that money isn't lost for good. The Recovery Rebate Credit, which you can claim as part of your 2020 tax return, will recoup that missing stimulus money, which totals up to $1,100 for qualifying babies (the $500 dependent stimulus payment from the CARES Act plus the $600 payment from the second bill in December). 

You can do this now, and your eligibility for the third check will remain the same. All you have to do is file your taxes -- and we recommend doing so sooner rather than later: If you get the third check before your new dependent becomes known to the IRS, the IRS will send a plus-up payment with the amount you now qualify for.

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

Where to find dependents listed on your taxes

If you filed taxes in 2018 or later, you can find your dependents listed on Form 1040, US Individual Income Tax Return in the middle of the first page in 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 shown there. 

1040

Find your dependent on your 2019 tax form 1040.

IRS

Do you and your spouse share custody of a dependent and file your tax returns 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 a qualifying child of more than one person. Here's how some parents who share custody handle the payments.

What if you're divorced or legally separated and share custody of a child?

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 a 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 situation that cropped up with the first check are parents who aren't married, have joint custody and alternate years in which they claim each dependent child (or children) on their tax returns. In that case, both parents were eligible under the first two stimulus bills to receive the $500 per qualifying child for the first check and $600 for the second. 

But with the third stimulus check, the IRS closed this loophole. That means the $1,400-per-dependent payment should go to the parent who filed the child on their taxes most recently (the IRS will use either your 2019 or 2020 tax return, whichever it has on file). The parent who doesn't receive a payment is not expected to be able to file for missing money on their 2021 tax return in 2022. 

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. 

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The stimulus check rules for a third payment are far more expansive, bringing thousands more to families.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Are there different rules for dependents with disabilities?

With the third stimulus check, the qualification of dependents of any age now means that dependents with certain disabilities count toward the household total. For tax purposes, the IRS defines this group as "permanently and totally disabled," and these individuals also 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:

  • The person isn't able to 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 has been different for stimulus checks so far. With the first two stimulus checks, children who are disabled or aged 17 years or older were not eligible for the money allotted to child dependents, unless they were aged 16 or younger on the relevant tax return used to calculate the stimulus payment. For the third check, all dependents are eligible for a payment of up to $1,400, regardless of age or disability status. 

What if my dependent died since I filed taxes last?

With the first check, if a child dependent who was listed on your last tax return has since died, it's likely you will be sent the extra payment, as was the case for the first two checks. If you haven't filed a new tax return or updated your information with the IRS since then, you may still get sent a payment for them. However, a payment made to someone who died before they received it should be returned to the IRS. You also can't claim a stillborn child as a dependent, according to the IRS. 

Dependents and the first two stimulus checks

The third check makes dependents of all ages, including young adults and older adults, eligible to add up to $1,400 each to your household's total. But if you're brushing up on rules for the first two payments, you'll find they're not the same.

In terms of federal tax regulations, a dependent falls 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 be claimed as a dependent on your taxes, a qualifying child must be either younger than 19 years old, or 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 people who meet a specific definition of "child dependent" were 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 was true for the second round under the December $900 billion law: The child dependent must be age 16 or under as of your 2019 tax return to qualify for any payment. 

For more information, here are all the details we know about the third stimulus check. If you still haven't gotten your first or second check, find out how to claim a missing payment and learn how to report your missing check to the IRS.