How Do Tax Credits Work? Understanding Your 1040 Tax Credits

Reduce Your Tax Bill With Tax Credits

Keyboard with keys labeled by tax credits
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Tax credits are the best of tax breaks. Deductions come off your income, reducing it so you pay taxes on less earnings, but tax credits subtract directly from your tax liability—what you owe the IRS. They can erase your tax bill, and some are even refundable so you'll get cash for any credit that's left over after your tax bill is gone.

You can claim tax credits for foreign taxes, child care expenses, college tuition and fees, and for costs associated with adoption. You might also be eligible for credits based on your age, your income, if you contributed to a retirement savings account, or if you have minor children who live with you and require childcare so you can work.

Each tax credit has its own qualifying rules, and they're worth different amounts.

Available Tax Credits in 2020

The following popular tax credits are in effect as of the 2019 tax year—the return you'll file in 2020.

  • The Earned Income Tax Credit is refundable credit designed to put money back in the pockets of low-income taxpayers. Strict income limits apply to qualifying. The maximum credit as of the 2019 tax year is $6,557 if you have three or more children.
  • The Child and Dependent Care Credit effectively reimburses you for some of what you must pay a care provider to watch your children or disabled dependents so you can work or look for work. It's a percentage of up to $6,000 in costs for two or more children, or $3,000 if you have only one child or dependent. Your child must be under age 13 to qualify.
  • Up to $1,400 of the Child Tax Credit is refundable beginning in tax year 2018 through at least 2025 under the terms of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. It works out to $2,000 for each of your children who are age 16 or younger as of the last day of the tax year. Earning too much can disqualify you from claiming this credit, and your children must meet several qualifying rules as well.
  • The Credit for Other Dependents is similar to the Child Tax Credit. It's for dependents who don't meet the age requirements to be a qualifying child, and it's worth $500. It's nonrefundable.
  • The Adoption Credit reimburses you for up to $14,080 in adoption expenses per child as of the 2019 tax year. It's not refundable, but you can carry over any unused portion of the credit for up to five additional years, applying it to what you owe the IRS in those subsequent years.
  • The Credit for the Elderly or Disabled is available to taxpayers who are age 65 or older or disabled. It ranges from $3,750 to $7,500 as of the 2019 tax year, and income limits apply. You won't qualify if you earn too much.
  • Technically titled the Retirement Savings Contribution Credit, the Saver's Credit rewards you for contributions you make to an IRA or an employer-sponsored retirement plan. It's worth 10%, 20% or 50% of your qualifying contributions, with a maximum credit of $1,000 or $2,000 if you're married and file a joint return. The percentage you're entitled to claim depends on your income.
  • The Premium Tax Credit goes hand-in-hand with the Affordable Care Act. It's intended to defray the cost of your health insurance premiums. You must purchase insurance through the Health Insurance Marketplace to qualify, and there are income limits.
  • Also referred to as the AOTC, the American Opportunity Tax Credit is for qualified education expenses you pay for yourself, your spouse, or your dependents. The maximum credit is $2,500 per student as of the 2019 tax year. It's a percentage of how much you actually spend on educational costs and income limits apply.
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit is another education credit with somewhat more lenient qualifying rules for students. It's worth up to $2,000 per tax return, not per student.

This list isn't exhaustive, and some of these credits phase out at certain upper income limits. The credit becomes less as you earn more until it's finally eliminated entirely.

Determine Your Tax Liability

Your tax liability is what you owe the IRS after you've prepared your Form 1040 tax return. You can find your gross tax liability on line 23 of the 2019 Form 1040, appropriately captioned "Amount you owe." 

The IRS has redesigned Form 1040 twice, once for the 2018 tax year and again for 2019. This information pertains to the 2019 tax return.

Your net tax liability is the tax you're responsible for paying after you claim deductions and apply all the tax credits you're entitled to. Tax credits reduce or eliminate this amount.

Taxes withheld from your pay during the year are a prepayment against your gross year-end tax liability. Self-employed taxpayers are expected to send in quarterly estimated tax payments, based on what they think they'll earn and owe at year's end. In either case, you'll receive a refund for anything you pay in that turns out to be in excess of what you actually owe...or if a refundable tax credit eliminates what you owe and there's still some left over. 

Refundable vs. Nonrefundable Credits 

Most credits are nonrefundable and are effectively wasted after your tax bill is erased. They're still great for eliminating or reducing your tax liability, but they don't go any further than that. For example, you'll owe the IRS nothing if you're entitled to $7,000 in nonrefundable credits and your tax liability is $5,000. Your $5,000 tax debt is erased by the tax credits, but the IRS will keep the $2,000 balance. 

You'll receive a refund for the balance, however, if you have more refundable credits than you have a tax liability. The earned income tax credit is an example of a refundable credit. Your tax refund will include any extra income tax that was withheld from your pay, as well as any leftover tax credits that didn't go toward erasing your tax debt.

A refundable credit can result in getting more money back from the IRS than you actually paid in through withholding or estimated tax payments.

Your Refund Might Be Delayed

The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act of 2015 requires that the IRS delay tax refunds on returns that claim the Earned Income Tax Credit or the refundable portion of the Child Tax Credit. This gives the IRS extra time to detect fraudulent returns, ensuring that everyone who claims these popular credits is actually entitled to do so.

In most cases, these refunds are released by mid-February.

Carryover Tax Credits 

A few credits can be carried from one year to the next so you don't lose any of the excesses even if they're not refundable. Sometimes they can even be carried back to previous tax years. The foreign tax credit, the adoption tax credit, and the residential energy credit for certain products all allow carryovers or carrybacks as of the 2019 tax year.

Note: Tax laws and forms change periodically. The above information might not reflect the most recent changes. Please consult with a tax professional for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not intended as tax advice and it is not a substitute for tax advice.

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