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What Is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Claiming a tax credit is one way to lower your tax bill. And if the tax credit that you’re eligible for is refundable, you’ll be able to use it to boost your tax refund even if it reduces your tax liability below zero. One example of a refundable tax credit is the earned income tax credit. But not everyone qualifies for it. Read on to find out who the tax credit benefits and how you can claim it on your tax return.

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The Purpose of the Earned Income Tax Credit

Tax credits reduce your tax burden dollar for dollar. Typically, these tax breaks are designed to benefit a particular group of people. That’s certainly the case with the earned income tax credit.

The earned income tax credit (EITC) was introduced in 1975 to provide temporary tax relief to the working poor who had to pay Social Security taxes amid increases in the cost of energy and food. Three years later, it became a permanent tax break under the Revenue Act of 1978. Over the years, the EITC has been expanded and altered in order to reduce poverty and encourage low-income individuals to find work.

Despite its benefits to low-income individuals – especially those with children – the tax credit remains a controversial incentive. Some who dislike the EITC argue that it’s costly. Due to tax filing errors and fraud, the government has mistakenly handed out billions of dollars to workers who didn’t actually qualify for the credit.

How the Earned Income Tax Credit Works

What Is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

The EITC offers a subsidy to low- and moderate-income Americans and their families. The amount that each worker qualifies for depends on various factors, including their earned income, adjusted gross income, filing status and whether or not they have a qualifying child.

Under the EITC program, workers with qualifying children tend to receive bigger tax credits than those without kids. For tax years 2016 and 2017, the maximum credit amounts for individuals without qualifying children are $506 and $510, respectively. For working families with at least three qualifying children, the maximum credit amounts are $6,269 and $6,318, respectively, for tax years 2016 and 2017.

Qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit

In order to qualify for the EITC, you’ll need to meet certain rules. For one thing, you’ll need to have earned income, or taxable income from working for a company, running a farm or owning a small business. You cannot claim the tax credit if you don’t have a Social Security number or you’re married and you’re filing a separate tax return.

You’re also ineligible for the EITC if you have more than $3,400 in investment income (or more than $3,450 for tax year 2017) and your adjusted gross income exceeds a certain threshold. For example, for tax year 2016, you cannot claim the tax credit if you’re single, you have no children and your adjusted gross income exceeds $14,880. For a complete breakdown of the income limits and phaseouts, you’ll need to refer to the earned income tax credit tables provided by the IRS for tax years 2017 and 2018.

While having more children can increase the size of the credit you’re eligible for, your kids will have to meet a series of benchmarks if you want to claim them under the EITC program. Unless your children are completely disabled, they can only be considered qualifying children if they’re under the age of 19 by the end of the tax year or they’re full-time students under the age of 24. Your children must live in your home for more than six months out of the year and must be related to you (i.e. the child is your son, nephew, grandchild or foster child).

Finally, if you have a child who’s married, he can only be a qualified child if he’s not filing a joint tax return (or he’s only filing a joint tax return in order to get a tax refund). If you don’t have any qualifying children, you may be eligible for the EITC if you’re between the ages of 25 and 64 and no one else can claim you as a dependent. Special rules apply for disabled individuals, ministers, clergy members and members of the military.

Claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit

What Is the Earned Income Tax Credit?

If a worker wants to take advantage of the EITC, he or she must file taxes. Even if your tax liability is equal to zero, you’ll need to submit a tax return if you want to claim the tax credit.

To estimate the amount of your credit, you can use the worksheets included with the instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. If you need assistance, you can use the EITC assistant provided by the IRS.

Final Word

The earned income tax credit offers working individuals and families an incentive if their income falls below the thresholds set by the IRS. Before claiming the credit, it’s important to ensure that you meet all of the qualifications and double-check that the information you’re providing on your tax return is accurate.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/mixetto, ©iStock.com/gradyreese, ©iStock.com/FatCamera

Amanda Dixon Amanda Dixon is a personal finance writer and editor with an expertise in taxes and banking. She studied journalism and sociology at the University of Georgia. Her work has been featured in Business Insider, AOL, Bankrate, The Huffington Post, Fox Business News, Mashable and CBS News. Born and raised in metro Atlanta, Amanda currently lives in Brooklyn.
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