You don't have to be a child or an invalid relative to be claimed on someone else's taxes. While it's true that the young and the elderly are normally associated with dependent status, it's not unusual for adults to be dependents as well, especially college students and couples living on a single income. Being a dependent doesn't necessarily exempt you from tax obligations, however, as nice as it would be to have an immediate get-out-of-tax-time-free card. There are specific circumstances where even a dependent must file.
The income of the dependent is the most crucial factor. There are variable levels of income requirements to be claimed as a dependent in the first place, but in any case, a dependent may not exceed the standard deduction allowed to all taxpayers. In 2011, that would have been $5,800. Earned income includes not just salaries, wages or tips, but also taxable scholarships and grants. Unearned income, which includes interest, dividends, capital gains, annuities, unemployment and trust income, has a cap of $950 for most dependents, after which they must file a return.
Whether or not you've been claimed as a dependent, you still have to file if you fall into a group with special tax considerations. If you owe an alternative minimum tax, taxes on your IRAs, taxes on any wages you earned, such as unreported tips, that didn't have Social Security or Medicare deducted, write-in taxes or household employment taxes, you've got to file. These are those special circumstances, though, where if you aren't sure what something is, you probably don't owe it.
Another thing that can muck a bit with your requirements to file is your age and marital status. You don't have to worry about it much if you're over 65 and going blind; the IRS cuts a little slack on the disabled elderly for dependent filing requirements. They really aren't crazy about married folks skipping filing, though, so if your spouse files separately with itemized deductions and you made at least five bucks, you have to file, too, whether you are someone else’s dependent or not. (See Reference 1)
Even if you don't have to file, you still might want to. Tax refunds are only sent to people who file returns, so if you don't file and you're owed money, you don't get it. This only applies if you earned money that had federal taxes withheld in the past year. If you don't earn more than the standard deduction, then the federal taxes you paid are owed back to you. You might also qualify for certain tax credits that can increase your refund beyond just the taxes that were withheld.
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