The U.S. tax code makes it clear who can be claimed as a dependent, but it's a little less precise about when a dependent can voluntarily separate themselves from a taxpayer who's able to claim them. Dependents can and often should file their own tax returns, but this doesn't necessarily mean that they're independent from their parent or another taxpayer who's able to claim them.
Rules for Qualifying Child Dependents
You're not anyone's dependent if you don't meet all the qualifying rules to be claimed, and different rules apply depending on your age.
A qualifying child dependent can be no older than age 19, or age 24 if they're still in school, unless they're totally and permanently disabled. They must be related to the taxpayer in some way, but this is a relatively loose requirement because foster children, stepchildren and stepsiblings all qualify.
Qualifying children must live with the taxpayer for more than half the year in most cases, and they can't pay for more than half their own support needs.
Rules for Qualifying Relative Dependents
A taxpayer must pay for more than half their dependent's living expenses if they're an adult, and the dependent must be a U.S. national, resident alien, citizen or a citizen of Mexico or Canada. They must live with the taxpayer all year unless they're closely related to them, and even then the taxpayer must pay more than half their living expenses elsewhere. An adult dependent can't have earned $4,200 or more in the 2019 tax year – the tax return you would file in 2020.
You're automatically "independent" if any one of these conditions aren't met.
Some Dependents Must File Tax Returns
You must file a tax return under some circumstances, even if someone else claims you as a dependent. A qualifying child dependent must do so if they have earned income of $12,200 or more in the 2019 tax year – the amount of the standard deduction for single filers for that year – or $1,100 in unearned income, such as interest and dividends.
These figures increase for dependents who are age 65 or older, or blind or disabled. The IRS provides a formula worksheet in Publication 929 if you have both earned and unearned income. It's a bit of a complicated equation.
You would still have to file a return even if you don't meet these income requirements if you had $400 or more in self-employment income, $108.28 in wages from working for a church or religious organization that's exempt from paying Social Security and Medicare taxes, or if you owe Social Security or Medicare taxes on tip income.
Filing a Return Even If You Don’t Have To
You'll want to file your own return regardless of whether you're a dependent or independent if you have any earned income at all, even if you don't meet the minimum income requirements. Your employer has presumably been withholding income tax from each of your paychecks, and the only way you can get that money refunded if you don't owe taxes is to file a return to claim it.
Why Being “Independent” Matters
You might also be eligible for certain tax credits if you file a tax return, such as the American Opportunity education credit, although the rules can be complex. But you'll often find that you won't qualify for these credits if someone claims you as a dependent. An exception exists for the earned income tax credit.
What to Do When You File
The dilemma is easily solved if your parents or other taxpayer who can claim you as a dependent simply agree not to do so. That's all the IRS wants in order for you to be declared "independent" at tax time – that another taxpayer does not claim you, even if they can.
There's a line near the top of the 2019 Form 1040, right after you enter all your identifying information. It says, "Someone can claim you as a dependent." Just check the box here. The key word here is "can." The taxpayer is able to, but isn't doing so.
About Those Coronavirus Economic Impact Payments
Being dependent or independent becomes more critical with regard to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act – the legislation that Congress passed and the president signed in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
- Credit Karma: When Does a Dependent Have to File a Tax Return?
- NOLO: When Does Your Child Have to File a Tax Return?
- H&R Block: Can I Claim Myself as a Dependent?
- TurboTax: At What Age Does a Minor Have to File a Tax Return?
- IRS: Publication 929 (2019), Tax Rules for Children and Dependents
- IRS: Form 1040 U.S. Individual Income Tax Return 2019
- IRS: Economic Impact Payment Information Center
- IRS: Economic Impact Payments – Qualifying Child Requirements