The IRS requires that all taxpayers file a tax return, regardless of age.
The Internal Revenue Service requires all taxpayers, regardless of age, to file a tax return and pay the appropriate income tax in any year their gross income exceeds certain levels. This requirement extends to the children you claim as dependents. However, unlike adult taxpayers, children have more flexibility in choosing how to comply.
Your dependent children must submit tax returns if they earn certain amounts of income during the year. Different filing rules apply to children and even small amounts of income may require a return.
You must ensure that your child is eligible to be your dependent; otherwise, their obligation to file a tax return is the same as adults. The tax rules allow you to claim a credit for a dependent for a child if they reside with you for more than half the year, don’t provide more than half of their own financial support, and are under the age of 19 at all times during the tax year, or under 24 if a full-time student.
If your adult child lives outside of the home because of educational obligations, you may still claim the exemption even though the child does not physically live with you during the year.
Your child's earned income
Unlike other taxpayers, the IRS treats your child differently depending on whether they earn money from work or through investments. All dependent children who earn more than $12,400 of income in 2020 must file a personal income tax return and might owe tax to the IRS. Earned income only applies to wages and salaries your child receives as a result of providing services to an employer, even if only through a part-time job.
However, even if your child earns less than $12,400 during 2020, it may be a good idea to file a tax return for them, because they could be eligible for a tax refund. Regardless of the amount of income your child earns, their standard deduction is different than yours. It can never exceed the larger of $1,100 or their earned income plus $350, with the maximum equal to $12,400.
Your child's investment income
The rules change when your child receives income from sources other than employment, such as interest and dividend payments. When the 2020 total of this type of income exceeds $1,100, then a return must be filed for your child.
If your child’s unearned income only consists of interest and dividends, then you can elect to include it on your own return and combine it with your income. Do this by completing IRS Form 8814 and attaching it to your personal tax return (TurboTax will do this for you).
However, depending on the level of your income, making this election may result in higher income tax than if you prepare a separate return for your child. This is because it could push you into a higher tax bracket, where higher tax rates may apply. If you decide to prepare a separate return for your child, the same reduced standard deduction rules detailed above will apply.
Filing your child's tax return
The responsibility for filing your child’s tax return rests with your child if he is capable of doing so. If he is not old enough to understand how to prepare a tax return, then it becomes your responsibility to file it for him or to include his income on your return.
If you do prepare the return, you can also sign it for him if he is unable to do so himself. However, you must include your own signature and a notation that you are signing for the child as the parent or guardian. Signing your child’s return also allows you to discuss it with the IRS in the event there are questions later on.