A tax credit is not the same as a deduction. In fact, they are far more valuable. Unlike a tax deduction, most credits also have income phase out limits, which reduce the number of taxpayers that qualify.
A tax deduction is something that reduces a tax liability in a given year. For example, it's possible to deduct mortgage interest payments on a federal income tax return. When doing so, this deduction lowers an individual's Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI. An individual in the 28% tax bracket that paid $10,000 in mortgage interest will pay $10,000 x 0.28, or $2,800 less in federal income taxes.
Tax credits, on the other hand, do not reduce the money owed by lowering taxable income. Instead, credits act like additional income taxes withheld. If someone paid $20,000 in federal income taxes, and is eligible for a credit of $1,000, then as far as the IRS is concerned, they paid $21,000 in taxes. By effectively increasing federal taxes withheld, the individual will be eligible for a larger refund.
In general, there are four different programs the average taxpayer should be familiar with:
Each of these programs is explained in the sections below, including the amount of credit that can be claimed on a federal income tax form, as well as qualifying rules.
For the tax years 2019 and 2020, taxpayers may be able to claim a child tax credit of $1,400 for each qualifying child. A qualifying child is one that was under the age of 17 at the end of the calendar year and is a child of the taxpayer, or that of a brother or sister, and is cared by the taxpayer as their own child; foster children are also eligible. The qualifying rules state all these children must be a U.S. citizen or resident.
The child tax credit is phased-out if adjusted gross income is above a certain level. The phase out limits for this credit includes:
Anyone that cares for a dependent that is under the age of 13, or for other dependents that are not able to care for themselves, may be eligible for the child and dependent care credit. This credit can be up to 35% of the expenses associated with the care of these individuals. To qualify, a taxpayer (claimant) must satisfy all eight of the IRS tests summarized below:
More information on this topic can be found in IRS Publication 503, which provides a worksheet to calculate the exact credit.
To claim the earned income tax credit, or EIC, an individual must have earned income, subject to limitations. In 2019, a qualifying individual's adjusted gross income must be less than $19,030, or less than $24,820 if married and filing a joint return. Income thresholds phase out for one qualifying child at $41,094, or $46,884 if married and filing a joint return. If there are three or more qualifying children, the income level is raised to $50,162, or $55,952 if married and filing a joint return.
In 2020, a qualifying individual’s adjusted gross income must be less than $19,330, or less than $25,220 if married and filing a joint return. Income thresholds phase out for one qualifying child at $41,756, or $47,440 if married and filing a joint return. If there are three or more qualifying children, the income level is raised to $50,954, or $56,844 if married and filing a joint return.
Individuals with more than $3,500 in investment income cannot claim this credit. In 2019, the tax credits themselves range from $6,557 for taxpayers with three or more qualifying children, through $529 for taxpayers without a qualifying child. In 2020, the tax credits themselves range from $6,660 for taxpayers with three or more qualifying children, through $538 for taxpayers without a qualifying child.
As was the situation with the Child and Dependent Care Credit, a worksheet is provided on the 1040 tax form to calculate the exact earned income credits.
The Lifetime Learning Credit is 20% of the first $10,000 paid for qualifying tuition and related expenses each year. The maximum credit for 2019 and 2020 is $2,000. Expenses for graduate and undergraduate work are eligible. Unlike the Hope Credit, there is no limit on the number of years this credit can be claimed; however, it is subject to the same AGI income phase out rules.
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