By Kristina Russo | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | January 24, 2021 in Money
My husband and I are both CPAs, yet we still groan when it comes time to do our joint tax return each year. The paperwork. The forms. All of that supporting documentation – the kitchen table is cluttered from end to end. I always wonder how “regular folks” – who aren’t trained accountants – feel at tax time. Based on stats from the IRS about the enormous number of returns that go unfiled (uh-oh), misfiled (oops), and under-filed (huh?), it seems you all feel just like me.
When tax credits are involved, these filing snafus mean hardworking people may be leaving real money on the kitchen table! To help you avoid that fate, I’ll look at how tax credits work from a process perspective, to help make it easier for you to claim what’s legally, rightfully yours.
Tax credits are payments offered by the government that shave money off your tax bill, dollar-for-dollar. Some tax credits are refundable which means you can get the money back even if it is more than the taxes you owe. Other tax credits are nonrefundable, which means they can only reduce your tax bill to zero, but they are still much more valuable than tax deductions, which only lower your taxable income.
Think about this: even if your earnings are lower than the threshold to file for income taxes, by not filing you could be missing out on a tax credit that might refund you money. That’s what I call “under-filing.” For example, the IRS estimates that 20% of taxpayers who are eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit don’t claim it, even though it might get them a refund worth thousands of dollars.1
In general, how tax credits work is simple. You look up the requirements for a particular tax credit – the most common ones are listed below – and see if your circumstances match the eligibility requirements. If so, you fill out Schedule 3 of Form 1040, which is required for all tax credits, plus the appropriate form for that credit. You can apply for as many tax credits as you’re eligible for, and they’re all combinable.
To help get you started, I’ve listed some common tax credits, the IRS forms you’ll need to claim them, and the supporting documents to have handy as you go through the steps. Even if you’re not a do-it-yourselfer, like my husband and me, it helps to get organized for your meeting with your preparer or for your afternoon date with online tax software.
Earned Income Tax Credit: This fully refundable $6,660 maximum credit is for working people who earn less than $56,844.2 You get more from it if you’re married and/or have kids.
Health Care Tax Credit (aka Premium Tax Credit): A fully refundable credit meant to help you pay monthly health insurance premiums.3 If you have a Health Reimbursement Arrangement, new guidelines may limit your ability to claim this tax credit, beginning in 2020.5
Child Tax Credit: A partially refundable credit of up to $2,000 meant to offset costs of raising a child. Up to $1,400 is the refundable portion (called the “Additional Child Tax Credit”).4 Recent updates allow you to use the greater of your 2019 or 2020 income when calculating the amount of the 2020 Additional Child Tax Credit, as a way to potentially increase the refundable tax credit for those whose taxable earnings declined during 2020.
American Opportunity Credit (aka Education Tax Credit): This credit for qualified higher education expenses maxes out at $2,500, 40% of which is refundable (up to $1,000 per eligible student).6
Lifetime Learning Credit (another Education Tax Credit): This nonrefundable credit is broader than the American Opportunity Credit but is worth less. It maxes at $2,000 per tax return, for expenses from many different levels of education and job training.7
Electric Vehicle Credit: This nonrefundable credit is worth up to $7,500 for purchasers of qualifying electric cars.8
Credit for Child and Dependent Care Expenses: A nonrefundable credit for costs paid for dependent care so that you can work, up to $1,050 per dependent.9
Retirement Savings Contribution Credit: A nonrefundable tax credit up to $2,000 for making eligible contributions to a retirement account.10
All the forms and instructions you need can be found on the IRS’ website plus many libraries, post offices, copy centers, and office supply stores. If you use a paid tax preparer, make sure you discuss tax credits as part of your filing. If you use an online filing service, their embedded tools lead you through sets of questions to help identify if you’re eligible for any tax credits and populate the appropriate completed forms.
The IRS offers a free tool on its website, the Interactive Tax Assistant (ITA), that can determine if you’re eligible for any tax credits by asking some very easy, guided questions. At the end the ITA provides links to the appropriate forms or you can take advantage of IRS Free File and Fillable Forms. Free File is free tax software and electronic filing programs for taxpayers with income below $72,000.11 Fillable Forms are electronic versions of all the IRS paper forms that does all the math automatically and are available to everyone.
For free, full-service, tax return preparation, consider the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance or Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs if your income is below $57,000 or if you’re older than 60, respectively.12
Understanding how tax credits work can help you maximize your eligible tax benefits, and may get you money “back” from the IRS even if you didn’t pay any taxes. The process for claiming tax credits is made easier with paid and free resources, plus a bit of organization. So clear off that kitchen table and start saving.
1 “EITC Fast Facts,” IRS
3 “2020 Instructions for Form 8962,” IRS
4 “SCHEDULE 8812 (Form 1040 or 1040-SR),” IRS
6 “2020 Instructions for Form 8863,” IRS
7 “Lifetime Learning Credits,” IRS
11 “File Your Federal Taxes Online for Free,” IRS