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Couple preparing tax returnsEvery year, people’s lives change in ways that affect their taxes. They may start a higher education program or have a child, and others take on elderly parents as dependents. These situations can change their eligibility for tax credits. In addition, federal, state and local governments sometimes adjust rules about credits, so it is crucial to understand what credits you can take. Navigating the world of tax credits and deductions can be confusing. That is why a trusted financial advisor can help you find every tax credit you are entitled to.

What a Tax Credit Is (and Isn’t)

Tax credits encourage people to spend money by giving them credit toward that expense. For example, one of the most common tax credits is the Child Tax Credit. Taxpayers who have children under the age of 17 receive a credit to help reduce the cost of raising a child. Another popular tax credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). The LLC encourages people to pursue further education by crediting part of the overall cost back at tax time.

A tax deduction lowers one’s taxable income, thus reducing the tax liability. If a person receives a deduction, he decreases the amount from his income, which lowers his taxable income. The lower a person’s taxable income, the lower the tax bill.

By contrast, a tax credit decreases the tax bill rather than a person’s taxable income. So, if a person has a $100,000 salary and has a $10,000 deduction, the taxable income will be $90,000. If the person in this example is taxed at a rate of 25%, the tax bill will be $22,500. If that same person has a $10,000 credit instead of a deduction, he will be taxed at 25% of their $100,000 income and owe $25,000 in taxes. However, he will then be credited $10,000 and owe only $15,000.

Some tax credits are refundable, but most are not. A refundable tax credit, which is different from a tax refund, can be given to taxpayers even if they do not owe any taxes. Additionally, a refundable tax credit can be given in addition to a tax refund. A nonrefundable tax credit means that a person will get the tax credit up to the amount owed. For example, if a person owes $2,000 in taxes and receives $3,000 in nonrefundable credits, that will simply erase her tax bill. If she gets $3,000 in refundable credits, she will receive a $1,000 tax refund.

Some common tax credits for individuals include:

  • Child Tax Credit
  • Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Credit for Other Dependents
  • Adoption Credit
  • Low-Income Housing Credit
  • Premium Tax Credit (Affordable Care Act)
  • American Opportunity Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit

Child Tax Credit

The Child Tax Credit is a refundable credit up to $1,400 and offers up to $2,000 per qualifying child age 16 or younger. Parents of children who are 16 or younger as of Dec. 31, 2020, can qualify for this tax credit. For someone to be eligible for the Child Tax Credit, the modified adjusted gross income must be under $400,000 if the parents of the child(ren) file jointly and $200,000 for any other person filing.

Additional requirements to qualify for the child tax credit include that the person filing must have provided at least half of the child’s support in the calendar year, and the child must have lived with the person filing for at least half the year. There are some exceptions to this rule, and it is best to discuss the child tax credit with a tax advisor.

Child and Dependent Care Credit

The cost of childcare, eldercare and other in-home care in the U.S. is high and tends to rise each year. If a couple is married and files jointly and has paid expenses for the care of a qualifying child or dependent so that one or both can work, they are likely eligible for the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

To qualify for the Child and Dependent Care Credit, the taxpayers must have received taxable income. This is because the credit is designed to help individuals who need to hire a caretaker to stay in the workplace.

Additionally, there are several qualifiers on the person being cared for. A child must be under age 13 when the care was provided. A qualifying spouse must be unable to take care of himself and have lived in the taxpayer’s home for at least half the year. A qualifying dependent must be physically or mentally incapable of caring for himself, have lived with the taxpayer for at least half the year and is either a dependent or could have been a dependent of the taxpayer. A taxpayer can claim up to $3,000 of expenses for one child or dependent and up to $6,000 for two or more children or dependents.

There are limits on who can provide care to qualify for this tax credit. The caregiver must not have been the taxpayer’s spouse, a parent of the child being cared for or anyone else listed as a dependent on the tax return. Additionally, the caregiver can’t be a child of the taxpayer.

Any child support payments you’ve received won’t be counted as taxable income. And if you’re the one making the child support payments, the income you used to do so won’t be tax deductible.

Federal Adoption Credit

Families that grow through adoption might be eligible for the Federal Adoption Tax Credit. Adoption can be an expensive process, and as families take on the burden of legal fees and more, the Federal Adoption Credit can help to decrease the burden when filing taxes.

To be eligible for the full credit, adoptive parents must earn $214,520 or less, regardless of their filing status. The credit is up to $ 14,300 per eligible child. An eligible child is any person under the age of 18 that is mentally or physically unable to take care of themselves. Eligible expenses include court costs, attorney fees, home studies and other travel expenses related to the adoption. The Federal Adoption credit is nonrefundable, so it will not produce a refund.

There are several rules for the Federal Adoption Credit, so it is important to speak with your tax advisor before claiming this credit. For example, if you received employer-provided adoption benefits, you may not claim the same expenses that were covered by your employer for the Federal Adoption Credit.

Credit for Other Dependents

Form 1040

The Credit for Other Dependents is a tax credit available for taxpayers who do not qualify for the Child Tax Credit. For example, someone who has a child age 17 or older or has other adult dependents with an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number might qualify for this credit. This tax credit amount is $500 for each dependent that qualifies for the tax credit. The credit is available in full to a taxpayer who earns $200,000 or less and decreases on a sliding scale as that person’s income increases.

An example of someone eligible for the Credit for Other Dependents is a single person filing who has a child dependent that is 17 years old and another child who is 21 and in college. Both children would likely qualify as dependents, and each would be eligible for the $500 credit. Another example is if someone has an adult relative living with him listed as a dependent on his tax return. In any case, the dependent must be a U.S. citizen, national or resident alien.

Lifetime Learning Credit

To promote education in the United States, the IRS created a tax credit called the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC). This credit is for qualified tuition and expenses paid for qualified students at qualified institutions in the United States.

To claim the LLC, a person, their spouse or their dependent must pay qualified higher education expenses. Additionally, the student must be enrolled at an eligible educational institution. Eligible educational institutions are colleges, technical schools and universities offering education beyond high school. All qualified educational institutions are eligible to participate in a student aid program run by the U.S. Department of Education. The IRS publishes a list for people to search if their school is a qualified educational institution.

To receive the LLC, a person must have received a 1098-T tuition statement from the higher education institution. The credit is worth 20% of the first $10,000 that a person spends at the higher education institution. For example, if a person started school at a university in the fall semester and tuition cost $10,000 or more, that person would receive a credit of $2,000. The LLC is not refundable, so a person can use the credit for taxes who owe but will not receive the credit as a refund.

Additionally, the LLC has income limits. In 2020, a person’s income must be $69,000 or lower if filing single and less than $138,000 if filing jointly to receive any of the LLC. To be eligible for the full LLC amounts, a person can earn up to $118,000 filing jointly or $59,000 filing single.

The Retirement Contribution Savings Credit

The Saver’s Credit, or the Retirement Contribution Savings Credit, has been around since the early 2000s. It was created to help low- and moderate-income individuals save for retirement. Depending on a taxpayer’s income, the Saver’s Credit is worth 10%, 20% or 50% of her total savings contribution up to $1,000, or $2,000 if a person is filing jointly.

For example, if a person is filing single, her income qualifies her for the 50% credit tier, and if she contributes $2,000 to an IRA, she can receive a credit of $1,000. The maximum credit is $1,000, so if the same person decides to contribute $2,500 to an IRA, she will still receive a $1,000 tax credit.

Earned Income Tax Credit

An Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) reduces the tax bills for low- to moderate-income working families. The credit ranges from $538 to $6,660 depending on a taxpayer’s filing status, how many children they have and their earned income. This amount changes every year, so be sure to verify the EITC with a tax advisor or verify with the IRS.

To qualify for the EITC, a taxpayer must have earned taxable income from a company, running a farm or owning a small business. People who do not earn an income, are married filing separately or do not have a Social Security number are not eligible for this credit. Additionally, people who earned over $3,650 in investment income are ineligible for this tax credit.

To earn the maximum EITC, a single filer can earn $50,594 or less, and a joint filer can earn $56,844 or less and have three or more dependent children. The amount of the EITC credit decreases if a taxpayer has fewer children.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is available to eligible students in the first four years of higher education. Students must be pursuing a degree or other recognized credential, be enrolled at least half time for at least one academic period or semester, not have received the AOTC or the Hope credit for more than the past four years and not have a felony drug conviction at the end of the tax year.

Students may receive up to $2,500 of credit for the AOTC. The credit is refundable up to 40%, so if a student is eligible for the full $2,500 and receives a tax return, the student can receive up to $1,000. The credit is awarded for 100% of the first $2,000 of qualified educational expenses and 25% of the next $2,000 of educational expenses. Therefore, if a student pays at least $4,000 in educational expenses, he will receive the full $2,500.

To prove they are eligible, students must receive a 1098-T from their educational institution. A taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income must be $80,000 or less, or $160,000 or less for a married couple filing jointly to receive the full AOTC. If the student is a dependent, the taxpayer may claim the AOTC when filing taxes.

An example of someone claiming the AOTC is a parent who earns $79,900 and has a student in the first four years of a degree program. Another example of someone eligible is a student who is not a dependent of anyone and works part-time, earning $80,000 or less. If you are unsure if you or your family qualifies for this tax credit, be sure to speak with a tax advisor.

The Takeaway

IRS buildingThere are many tax credits that American taxpayers can take advantage of. These credits were created to encourage spending in specific areas of the economy and help low- and moderate-income families prosper. In addition to tax credits, there are plenty of other ways to keep more money in your pockets during tax season. Be sure to check out the IRS website to learn more about other tax credits, including the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit, Foreign Tax Credit and more.

Tips on Taxes

  • Navigating the world of tax deductions and credits can be cumbersome and confusing. That is why it is so valuable to work with a financial advisor. Finding one doesn’t have to be difficult. SmartAsset’s matching tool can connect you with several financial advisors in your area within minutes. If you’re ready, get started now.
  • Using a free tax return calculator can help confirm that you did your arithmetic correctly … or indicate that you may have missed a credit or deduction.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/grejak, ©iStock.com/Ridofranz, ©iStock.com/Pgiam

 

Ashley Chorpenning Ashley Chorpenning is an experienced financial writer currently serving as an investment and insurance expert at SmartAsset. In addition to being a contributing writer at SmartAsset, she writes for solo entrepreneurs as well as for Fortune 500 companies. Ashley is a finance graduate of the University of Cincinnati. When she isn’t helping people understand their finances, you may find Ashley cage diving with great whites or on safari in South Africa.
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