Does Your Teen Need to File a Tax Return?

By Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz

March 12, 2014 6 min read

Dear Carrie: My daughter is 16 and has her first paying job. Does she need to file a separate tax return? — A Reader

Dear Reader: Congratulations to your daughter — and to you. A first job is an important milestone for both kids and parents. It's a step toward independence and personal responsibility for your daughter. And it's an opportunity for you to teach her some financial realities.

Taxes are definitely a part of that financial reality. So I'll first discuss the parameters for filing a tax return. Then I'd like to get into ways you can help your daughter learn to manage her money wisely — which, to me, is the most important lesson of all.

BASIC GUIDELINES FOR FILING A TEEN'S TAX RETURN

Whether or not your daughter needs to file a separate tax return depends on three basic factors:

1. Is she considered a dependent by the IRS?

2. How much income does she have?

3. What type of income does she have?

The IRS considers a child who is under 19, or under age 24 and a full-time student, or permanently disabled at any age to be a dependent. Your daughter is 16, so that's one down. Now you need to look at her income, both the amount and type.

Here's where it gets more complicated because there are different rules and income limits for earned income from a job, unearned income from dividends, interest or investment gains — or a combination of both. Plus, income limits can change yearly. To cover the bases, I'll list numbers for both 2013 and 2014.

FOR EARNED INCOME ONLY

This is pretty straightforward. A dependent only has to file a separate tax return if earned income is above the standard deduction — $6,100 for 2013; $6,200 for 2014. So if your daughter earned $5,000, she wouldn't have to file.

But it could be a good idea to do it anyway. If her employer withheld federal income tax, she might be entitled to a refund. You don't want her to miss out on that. Plus, it's a good learning experience.

FOR UNEARNED INCOME ONLY

Unearned income is a different story. If a child has unearned income above $1,000 for 2013 (same for 2014), a tax return is required. But when dealing with unearned income only, you can choose to either file a separate return for your child or include that income on your own return. One caveat: If you include it on your return, it could boost you into a higher tax bracket — and possibly higher tax rates.

FOR A COMBINATION OF BOTH

The rules change again if a dependent has both earned and unearned income. In this case, you need to file a separate return if:

1. Unearned income is more than $1,000.

2. Earned income is more than the current standard deduction.

3. Combined income totals more than the larger of $1,000, or earned income (up to $5,750) plus $350.

To make this a little clearer, let's say your daughter had $100 in interest income plus $5,000 in earned income. She wouldn't have to file a return because her total income is less than $5,350. However, if she had $400 in interest income and only $300 of earned income, she would have to file because $300 plus $400 plus $350 is more than $1,000.

All this can be a bit confusing, so unless your daughter's situation is fairly straightforward, I'd talk to your tax professional. Or at least carefully review the instructions on IRS Form 1040 — ideally with your daughter.

A WORD ON THE "KIDDIE TAX"

You may have heard of the Kiddie Tax, so I think that's also worth a mention. This has to do with tax rates on unearned income.

For 2013 and 2014, if your child has unearned income between $1,001 and $2,000, it's taxed at his or her rate. But unearned income above $2,000 is taxed at the parent's highest income tax rate. If your child has a lot of unearned income, that could be pretty significant.

GOING BEYOND TAXES

Whether or not your daughter files a return, I'd definitely talk to her about taxes and withholding, and have her work with you as you prepare either her or your own return.

Then take it beyond taxes and talk about responsible money management. Now that your daughter is earning her own money, help her create a budget so she can make the most of it. For instance, what do you expect her to pay for? Clothes? Entertainment? Gas? Have her keep track of her expenses monthly.

Suggest that she save a certain percentage of her paycheck each month for some future goal. If she hasn't done so already, help her open both checking and savings accounts, and set up an automatic deposit from one to the other. Now that she has earned income, you might even help her open a Roth IRA.

Establishing good money habits early is incredibly important but, in general, kids don't learn much about managing money in school. It's up to you. So show her how you manage for both the short and long term. If you take it step by step, and include her where appropriate in your own money strategies, you'll set her on the path to being able to not only handle her taxes but her financial future as well.

Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz, CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER(tm), is president of Charles Schwab Foundation and author of the forthcoming book, "The Charles Schwab Guide to Finances After Fifty," available in bookstores in April 2014. Read more at http://schwab.com/book.You can email Carrie at [email protected] This column is no substitute for an individualized recommendation, tax, legal or personalized investment advice. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, consult with a qualified tax advisor, CPA, financial planner or investment manager. To find out more about Carrie Schwab-Pomerantz and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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