When it comes to stimulus checks, no one might feel like they’ve slipped through the cracks more than college students.
Not really on their own, yet not entirely under their family’s financial purview, many are still claimed on their parent or guardian’s taxes as an “adult dependent.” But it’s to their own detriment: That classifier is what excluded them from both rounds of stimulus checks, even though they haven’t been immune from job loss or financial hardship.
“As long as they are dependents of their parents, they are not receiving the payment,” says Thomas O’Connor, CFP, senior wealth advisor at Keel Point.
But if you’re a college student, taking a careful look at your finances is vital — in some cases, it could be worth up to $1,800, taking into account both the first $1,200 stimulus check and the second $600 payment. You might’ve unknowingly aged out of the “adult dependent” category in 2020 or had some other kind of circumstantial, lifestyle change that might’ve otherwise qualified you for the payment. If that’s the case, experts say you should file for what’s called a “Recovery Rebate Credit” when you submit a tax return for 2020.
“College students in particular should be careful not to overlook these payments if they’re supporting themselves and can’t be claimed as a dependent on someone’s tax returns,” IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in an earlier statement from November. “A few minutes of research could really help students.”
Here’s what college students should know about reconciling that $1,800 stimulus payment and what steps they’d need to take.
$1,800 Recovery Rebate Credit: Which college students should apply?
The CARES Act and late December’s supplemental $900 billion relief package sent two total stimulus checks to each qualifying low- and middle-income adult worth a cumulative $1,800 and then $1,100 for each of their dependent children younger than 17. With most college-aged students older than 17, they were excluded from both checks by design, along with other adult dependents, including individuals with disabilities.
“It’s only for those under the age of 17, and again, the eligibility will be for the parents’ taxes and not for the dependents’ tax return information in order to receive that stimulus,” says Mark Jaeger, director of tax development at TaxAct. “The adult dependents would not be eligible.”
But college students want to be particularly careful because they often straddle the lines between independent and dependent taxpayer statuses.
The IRS has a five-part test to determine whether adults are eligible to be claimed as a dependent. If they’re a full-time student for at least five months of the year, they have to be under the age of 24. Most of the time, they have to be related to the adult taxpayer who’s claiming them and share the same permanent address. And the biggest qualifier: Dependent college students can have a job, but they cannot provide more than half of their own support.
1. If you graduated, started working or turned 24 years old in 2020
Many college students in 2020 might’ve turned age 24, particularly if they’re in a graduate degree program. Another group might’ve received their diploma, gotten married or started working a full-time job, supporting themselves entirely and moving out of their parents’ house.
If any of those situations apply to you or if you’ve had a lifestyle change, you’d most likely be eligible for a $1,800 retroactive stimulus payment ($1,200 from the first round and $600 from the second). That’s because your tax situation changed between 2019 and 2020.
But as always, you have to make sure you fall into the income eligibility requirements to receive your $1,800 check: earning up to $150,000 as a married couple or $75,000 as a single adult. Payments subtract by $5 per every $100 over that income threshold. In the first round, you wouldn’t get any stimulus payment at all if you earned more than $99,000 as a single filer and $198,000 as a couple. For the second round, checks were cut off at annual incomes of $87,000 and $174,000 for individuals and married filers, respectively.
2. Self-supporting students, who normally don’t file a tax return
However, some circumstances might make a college student eligible for a stimulus payment even if they haven’t aged out of being an adult dependent or moved out and graduated.
One such group would be self-supporting students with little-to-no income. They cannot be claimed as a dependent on another adult’s tax return, but they normally don’t need to file one because the income they earned in the year is less than your standard deduction (in 2020, individuals who made less than $12,400 do not need to file a tax return, according to the IRS). Without a direct deposit or address on file, you most likely didn’t receive a check because the IRS and the Treasury Department had no information on where to send it.
If you’re this kind of college student, you’ll want to claim your $1,800 payment.
3. Those who want to change their tax status — but take caution
While perhaps seen as a more extreme measure, college students could decide to file independently for 2020. That’s only, of course, if they can prove that they provided more than half of their own support in the year. College students living on campus and away from home certainly come close to that threshold, meaning it might be worth examining your finances.
“If they’re living at home, and they are a student and they don’t work, it would be a harder stretch to say, ‘I am not a dependent,’” says Mark Steber, senior vice president and chief tax officer at Jackson Hewitt.
Yet, there’s plusses and minuses to making such a change. If you’re a working college student, filing your own tax return independently could secure you a refund on federal taxes withheld from your paychecks.
But switching your tax status could cause your parents or guardians to miss out on other deductions that might be worth more than the $1,800 stimulus check in the long run. One such instance: If your parent or guardian is single and doesn’t have any other qualifying dependents, they’d be bumped from filing with the more tax-friendly “head of household” status and instead be considered a single filer.
Other tax credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a tax break for low- to moderate-income workers and families that ranges from $538 to $6,660 depending on how many children you have. Your family might also miss out on the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) worth an annual maximum of $2,500 per eligible student and the lifetime learning credit (LLC) worth up to $2,000 per tax return. Students, however, can claim those credits on their own as an independent taxpayer.
More stimulus money could soon be on the way. President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan included provisions that would make all adult dependents eligible for a third stimulus check.
Even if none of these specific situations apply to you, it might still be worth consulting a tax preparer to help you assess your situation and determine whether you should file for the credit.
What’s most beneficial about the Recovery Rebate Credit is that it can’t come back to hurt your finances. Payments weren’t considered taxable income, and Americans who were lucky enough to see a raise in 2020 won’t be required to pay that money back if they now earn outside the bounds of income eligibility. The IRS says the credit you receive can only lower the amount you owe or increase the size of your refund.
“Everybody could use a little help at tax time, and a tax pro should be able to help you with that, or at a minimum, lower the amount you owe this year,” Steber says.