Federal Tax Liability of Dependent Minors

The tax on minors’ income varies according to how much they made. To assess whether to file a tax return for a child, you first have to determine how much of her income was earned and how much was unearned.

Filing Requirements for Dependents

Earned income is wages, independent contractor fees and all other forms of compensation received for providing services. Unearned income is every other type of reportable payment that doesn't qualify as earned income.

Typically, a minor's unearned income is from investments, such as interest and dividends. But it can also be part of a scholarship or grant she receives. Educational scholarships and grants are tax free up to the cost of attendance which includes tuition, fees, and required books and supplies. If the scholarship or grant exceeds the cost of attendance, the excess may be taxable.

Exceptions to Dependent Minors Filing

The IRS doesn’t care how old or young you are. Regardless of age, a tax return must be filed and taxes paid on any income that exceeds the levels they’ve set. This requirement applies to children whether or not you claim them as dependents on your tax return.

When preparing a separate tax return for your minor child, remember that she cannot take a personal exemption. As the minor's parent or guardian, through the 2017 tax year, you'll take an exemption for her as your dependent. You can claim a personal exemption for a child as long as they live with you for at least half of the year, don’t provide more than half of their own financial support, and are under the age of 19 throughout the tax year or under 24 if they’re a full-time student. Personal exemptions were removed for the 2018 tax year.

2018 Filing Requirements for Dependents

Beginning with the 2018 tax year, a minor who is claimed as a dependent on her parents’ return also has to file their own return when her earned income exceeds her standard deduction. The standard deduction for a dependent child is their total earned income plus $350, up to a maximum of $12,000. This is a big increase from 2017.

If your child has only unearned income, she must file a return if it totals more than $1,050. If she has both earned and unearned income, she must file if the unearned income portion was over $1,050, or the earned portion was over $12,000, or the earned plus unearned income total more than the larger of $1,050 or the earned income plus $350 (up to a maximum of $12,000).

Another big change for 2018 is that personal exemptions for each dependent have been eliminated. This goes for tax years 2018 through 2025. However, the standard deduction has been increased to $12,000 for individuals and $24,000 if you’re married and filing jointly.

2017 Filing Requirements for Dependents

Dependent minors are required to file 2017 tax returns if their earned income was more than $6,350, or if their unearned income was more than $1,050. If the minor has both earned and unearned income, she has to file a return if her unearned income is more than $1,050, or her earned income is more than $6,350, or if the total of both incomes is more than the larger of $1,050 or the minor’s earned income plus $350. This last stipulation is capped at $6,350. Even if your child earned less than $6,350 during 2017, you may still want to file a tax return for her in case she has a refund coming.

The 2017 standard deduction that minors can take is not a fixed amount like it is for adult taxpayers. For a minor who is claimed as a dependent on her parent’s tax return, the standard deduction is the larger of $1,050, or the minor's earned income plus $350, but no more than $6,350.

The 2017 standard deduction for yourself went up a bit from the 2016 tax year. It’s $6,350 for single taxpayers and $12,700 for married couples filing jointly. If you’re a single parent you probably file as head of household. As such you can claim a standard deduction of $9,350. In addition to these standard deductions, you can claim one exemption of $4,050 each for yourself, your spouse and each of your eligible dependents.

Child Income Tax Options

Generally, it's the child's responsibility to file all required tax returns. If a child is too young to prepare and file her return, responsibility shifts to the parent or guardian. If your child can't sign her name on the return, you can do it for her by inserting the phrase: “By (your signature), parent (or guardian) for minor child” in the return's signature box.

If your child is under 19, or under 24 and a full-time student, and she only has unearned income from interest and dividends totaling less than $10,500, you may be able to avoid filing a separate return and report her income on your own return. This is done by filling out and attaching Form 8814 to your tax return. However, be aware that the IRS may use your tax bracket instead of hers to determine how much tax is due. To use Form 8814, your child has to meet a list of conditions in addition to the age requirement and having only unearned income.

Whether the child is filing her own tax return or you’re including her income on yours, what the child’s income tax will be depends on how much she earned. The federal tax on your child’s income may be less if you file a separate tax return for her instead of using Form 8814. This is because you’re not entitled to some of the tax benefits that your child could take on her own return. For a complete list of conditions and to determine if including your child’s income on your return makes sense for you, see the IRS’s website or check with a professional tax preparer.