What Is the Child and Dependent Care Credit?

The Child and Dependent Care Credit is a non-refundable tax credit offered to taxpayers who pay out-of-pocket expenses for childcare. The credit offers relief to individuals and spouses who pay for the care of a qualifying child or a disabled dependent while they work or look for work. The amount of the tax break varies depending on the taxpayer’s income level.

Key Takeaways

  • While there’s no income restriction on claiming the credit, those with lower income levels can claim a higher percentage of eligible expenses.
  • In addition to daycare, tax filers can also claim other expenses, such as babysitters, day camps and before- and after-school programs.
  • You are not permitted to include expenses that were paid with pre-tax dollars, including those coming from a flex spending account. 

Understanding the Child and Dependent Care Credit

A tax filer may be able to claim the child and dependent care credit if he or she paid someone to care for a child under the age of 13. One can also qualify if they paid for the care of a spouse or other dependent adult so long as that individual cannot take care of himself and lived in the taxpayer’s home at least half the year.

Unlike deductions, tax credits represent a dollar-for-dollar reduction in one’s tax liability. However, because the child and dependent care credit is a non-refundable credit, it has no value if you do not owe any income tax for the year.

When calculating the credit, you can include up to $3,000 of eligible expenses if you have one qualifying dependent, or up to $6,000 if you have two or more dependents. The amount of the actual credit you’re allowed to claim is between 20% and 35% of those allowable expenses, depending on your income.

While there’s no cap on the amount of income you can earn and still use the credit, higher-earning individuals and spouses can claim a smaller percentage of eligible expenses. In 2019, taxpayers whose earned income is below $15,000 a year can claim 35% of their applicable care costs. That percent goes down by 1 percentage point for each additional $2,000 of earned income until reaching a floor of 20% for individual filers—or lower-earning spouses, if married—making $43,000 or more.

The amount of expenses you can claim is limited to the amount of earned income you generate from work. For married couples, that limit applies to the spouse who makes less money. In most cases, if one spouse does not earn income through employment, the couple may not use the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

To claim the credit, you must submit IRS Form 2441, “Child and Dependent Care Expenses,” with your Form 1040. Based on your income, the form will identify the percentage of allowable child or dependent care expenses you are permitted to claim for your credit. 

You can claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit on Form 2441 if you are filing Form 1040.

Who Can Claim the Credit?

In order to claim the credit, you or your spouse must have earned income—that is, money earned through employment—and you must have paid for the care so that you can work or search for work. Married spouses need to file a joint return in order to claim the credit or show they meet special requirements listed in IRS Instructions for Form 2441.

The IRS allows parents to claim a fairly wide range of expenses, including those for:

  • Daycare
  • Babysitters, as well as housekeepers, cooks, and maids who take care of the child
  • Day camps and summer camps (overnight camps are not eligible)
  • Before- and after-school programs
  • Nurses and aides who provide care for a dependent who is disabled
  • Nursery school or preschool

While working parents can claim educational expenses at the pre-K level, costs related to kindergarten and above do not qualify. Similarly, costs related to summer school or tutoring are not eligible for the credit.

Except under limited circumstances, the caregiver may not be a member of your immediate family. Specifically, the person providing care cannot be your spouse or the parent of the child whose care you are paying for if they are under 13 years of age. Nor can the caregiver be a child of yours under the age of 19 or a dependent of yours for tax purposes.

When claiming the credit, filers need to provide the caregiver’s name, address and Social Security number. If it’s a daycare or preschool, he or she must provide its tax ID number.

Child Care Credit vs. FSA

You may not use the child and dependent care credit for expenses that were reimbursed by your employer, or that you paid with pre-tax dollars, including funds held in a flexible spending account (FSA). In some cases using an FSA—if one is available through your employer—provides a larger tax benefit. That’s particularly true for those in higher tax brackets, for whom the ability to pay with pre-tax dollars represents a bigger tax reduction.

Tax filers may contribute a maximum of $5,000 annually to a dependent care FSA. Money in these FSAs is withheld from your paycheck on a pre-tax basis and placed into a non-interest-bearing account that can be used for eligible expenses.