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By Julia Glum
Updated: March 17, 2021 1:18 PM ET
Photo collage of a graduate student with a stimulus check in-front of his face.
Money; Getty Images

College students and other dependents rejoiced last week when President Joe Biden signed a law that finally qualified them for coronavirus stimulus checks. But now that the IRS is actually distributing the $1,400 payments, some of those celebrations may seem premature.

That’s because although they technically qualify for the latest round of relief payments, dependents aren’t seeing stimulus money deposited into their own bank accounts. Instead, their Economic Impact Payments are going to whichever taxpayer claimed them — in most cases, their parents.

This is leading to uncomfortable situations. Forever tweeting through it, young adults have taken to social media to complain about having to annoy their parents for stimulus updates, ask them to transfer the money, watch as the cash gets spent or fight over who deserves it more.

And that’s assuming they’re getting aid at all.

Confused about who gets stimulus money for dependents? Wondering why this is happening? Think it’s unfair? Here’s what you need to know.

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Dependent eligibility for stimulus checks keeps changing

The American Rescue Plan calls for single filers to receive $1,400 and joint filers to receive $2,800, if they meet certain income requirements. They also get “$1,400 multiplied by the number of dependents of the taxpayer.”

This was a departure from previous stimulus checks.

The first round of payments, passed as part of the March 2020 CARES Act, provided taxpayers with $1,200 plus $500 per qualifying child. That category included any “child, stepchild, eligible foster child, sibling, half sibling, step sibling” or descendant claimed as a dependent. But there was an age limit. They had to be “younger than 17 at the end of the 2019 tax year.”

The second round of payments, approved in late December, provided $600 for single filers plus $600 per qualifying child. Again, dependents over 17 didn’t qualify.

The rules boxed out millions from aid. Parents can generally claim kids who live with them half of the year, students between 19 and 24, children with disabilities, and certain relatives for whom they provide financial support. But these dependents didn’t qualify for the stimulus checks, leading to outcry among families. Some high school seniors didn’t even make the cut.

The American Rescue Plan, though, nixed the age restriction. Kids and students as well as adult dependents like parents and grandparents were all included.

“Everybody who has a Social Security number is eligible for one of these payments,” says Richard Winchester, a tax expert and associate professor of law at Seton Hall University. “If you file a tax return, you will get it — unless you can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, in which case that person will get it on your behalf.”

Imagine a family of three. Mom and Dad qualify for the full payment, as does their 20-year-old dependent daughter in college.

The IRS has run the numbers and is sending them $4,200. But it’s not routing any of the funds to the daughter’s personal checking account. The payment will be direct deposited into the account (or mailed to the physical address) that belongs to the principal taxpayer. It’s only one check; Mom and Dad get it all.

Income limits impact dependent stimulus checks

For the third stimulus check, any single filer who earns $75,000 or less or married couple who earns $150,000 or less is eligible to receive the full amount. Over those thresholds, the payments phase out. They hit zero at $80,000 and $160,000, respectively.

Winchester says dependents are subject to these restrictions, as well.

Now envision a different family, one where the parents make $200,000 a year. Because their adjusted gross income is too high, they don’t get relief money for themselves or their daughter. She could be away at school eating ramen noodles for every meal — regardless of her personal income level, the IRS won’t send aid if Mom and Dad earn too much.

It’s not an all or nothing. Above the thresholds, the payments taper off, dropping 5% for every $100 above the limit. But you get the idea.

“The phaseout percentage applies to the entire amount that the principal taxpayer is in line to receive,” Winchester adds.

It’s not a perfect system. Winchester says the government was constrained by its decision to use the IRS as the vehicle to get the stimulus funds out to needy Americans. This allows the payments to go out fast, but it also leaves room for error — and, as we’re seeing on social media, drama.

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How can a dependent get the $1,400 stimulus?

In theory, primary taxpayers receive stimulus money for their dependents because they’re financially supporting them. Legally, the $1,400 doesn’t “belong” to the dependent even though they may be the reason the sum is being sent.

But there are always exceptions. So, how can you fix this? Are dependents powerless to get their own stimulus checks?

Per the text of the American Rescue Plan, dependents don’t qualify for their own stimulus checks. The law specifically defines an eligible individual as anyone who’s not a nonresident alien or an “individual who is a dependent of another taxpayer” for the year in question.

Solutions are slim. If you cannot be claimed as someone else’s dependent, then you could file your own tax return. (Young single people who earn under $12,400 typically don’t have to.) But the law forbids people from being “taken into account more than once,” including “by reason of a change in joint return status or dependent status” between two years.

There is also a timing issue to be aware of. Stimulus payments are going out now based on people’s 2019 and 2020 tax returns. The IRS is planning to adjust payments this summer and next tax season.

All of that considered, your best bet may be to politely asking the taxpayer who claims you to pass along the funds.

This story has been corrected to include more accurate information about federal income taxes and filing status.

More from Money:

Who Qualifies for a $1,400 Stimulus Check? Eligibility Rules Explained

Where’s Your $1,400 Stimulus Check? Payment Dates Vary by Bank

Can the IRS Take Back Your $1,400 Payment? 7 Stimulus Check Myths, Debunked