Whether a child needs to file a federal income tax return depends on a number of factors, including the age of the child, the amount of the income and the source of the income.
In general, children pay tax at their own rate for earned income. Earned income is income from wages and salary.
When children have unearned income (generally interest, dividend and capital gains distributions), taxes get a little bit tricky. Children don’t have to pay federal income taxes on the first $950 of unearned income. They do pay tax on the next $950 of unearned income — but generally at their own tax rate.
When a child’s unearned income reaches $1,900, the income over that amount is taxed at the parent’s tax rate. This is the so-called “kiddie tax.” When that happens, you figure the tax on a federal form 8615, Tax for Certain Children Who Have Investment Income of More Than $1,900.
The first thing the Internal Revenue Service wants to know? Right after the child’s name and Social Security number, federal form 8615 asks for the child’s parent’s name, Social Security number and filing status. If the child’s parents are married and file a joint return, use the name and Social Security number of the parent whose name appears first on the parents’ federal income tax return. If the child’s parents are married but filed separate returns, use the name and Social Security number of the parent who had the higher taxable income — that’s the parent whose tax rate which will be used to calculate the tax rate at Part II of the form. If the child’s parents are divorced or single, use the name and Social Security number of the custodial parent (in most cases, that’s the parent the child lived with for most of the year).
In some instances, parents may want to report the child’s investment income on their own return. The IRS allows for this option by making an election on a federal form 8814, Parents' Election to Report Child's Interest and Dividends. Certain criteria apply including that the child must have unearned income of less than $9,500; the child must have no earned income; and the child must be under age 19 or a full-time student and under age 24 at the end of the tax year.
While this option means less paperwork at tax time, adding your child’s income to your own return can significantly change your own tax picture. Keep in mind that deductions and credits that are subject to phase outs and other limits could be affected. Run the numbers to see which option makes the most sense for your family.
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