What Is the Child Tax Credit?

The child tax credit is a tax benefit granted to American taxpayers for each qualifying dependent child. Designed to help taxpayers support their families, this credit has been greatly expanded by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. It is estimated that the new rules will reduce by 45% the number of American children living in poverty. 

The child tax credit decreases taxpayers’ tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The recent legislation increased the maximum annual credit from $2,000 per child (under age 17) in 2020 to $3,000 per child (under age 18) or $3,600 (children younger than 6) for 2021. While the 2020 credit was partially refundable, the 2021 credit is fully refundable. In addition, the 2021 child tax credit will be distributed to eligible taxpayers in advance payments on a monthly basis, from July 15, 2021 and parents don't have to owe taxes to receive it.

Key Takeaways

  • For 2020, the child tax credit is an income tax credit of up to $2,000 per eligible child (under age 17) that may be partially refundable.
  • For 2021, the credit is $3,000 (children under age 18) or $3,600 (children under age 6) per eligible child for American taxpayers for 2021; it is fully refundable and can be received as advance payments.
  • Eligible children are legal dependents who are U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or U.S. resident aliens.
  • This tax credit is intended to help low- to middle-income taxpayers and thus is phased out for high-income families.
  • Parents who weren't required to file taxes for 2020—but are eligible for the Child Tax Credit—should use the IRS's new Child Tax Credit Non-Filer Signup Tool to make sure the IRS has their information so that they can be sent child tax credit payments starting in July 2021.
  • The increased, fully refundable $3,000/$3,600 annual credits currently are provided only for 2021. Unless extended by future legislation, the child tax credit will revert to its 2020 amounts and rules in 2022.
  • President Joe Biden’s proposed American Families Plan would extend the credit to 2025 and make the credit permanently fully refundable.

When preparing their tax returns for 2020, eligible taxpayers should have calculated and compared the amounts of the child tax credit based on their earned income for both the 2019 and 2020 years to determine which year provides a greater benefit. The refundable portion of the 2020 credit, called the additional child tax credit, takes into account the taxpayer’s annual earnings. Because many had lower earnings in 2020 than in 2019 as a result of the pandemic, the special “look-back” rule allows taxpayers to determine the amount of their credit for 2020 on the basis of their 2019 earnings.

For 2021, taxpayers should be aware of an important change: a substantial immediate benefit in the form of advance payments. During 2021, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) plans to start advance payments of 2021 child tax credits of up to $250 (under age 18) or $300 (under age 6) per child on a monthly basis, starting in July 2021. Taxpayers who are entitled to the credit for 2021 and want to receive advance payments as early as possible should confirm that the IRS has direct deposit information for their bank accounts.

July 15, 2021

The day that advance child tax credit payments start appearing in the bank accounts of parents eligible to receive this credit.

Taxpayers who included their account information on their 2020 tax returns will benefit from electronic direct deposit of advance payments, which will be faster than paper checks. Those who didn't file can use a new IRS online portal to update their information for the 2021 advance payment program.

Recognizing the work involved in setting up the advance payment program and creating the portal, the law provides the U.S. Treasury Department significant funding for these developments, but also takes feasibility into account and allows flexibility in scheduling their introduction.

How the Child Tax Credit Works

As noted above, the child tax credit will work differently for 2020 income taxes—the ones due on the new 2020 tax filing date of May 17, 2021—and for 2021 taxes. The 2021 changes, mandated by the American Rescue Plan, are just for 2021. After that year—if no further legislation makes additional changes—the credit will revert to the rules in effect for 2020, with some inflation adjustments. Here’s how the differences play out.

Taxpayers planning to claim the child tax credit on tax returns for 2020 that were due on May 17, 2021 (unless extensions are obtained), should acquaint themselves with a special “look-back” rule designed to compensate for income reductions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020

For 2020, eligible taxpayers can claim a tax credit of $2,000 per qualifying dependent child under age 17. If the amount of the credit exceeds the tax owed, then the taxpayer generally is entitled to a refund of the excess credit amount up to $1,400 per qualifying child. The refundable portion of the credit—i.e., the additional child tax credit—was designed to help taxpayers whose tax liabilities were too low to benefit from part or all of the credit. 

For 2020, a special “look-back” rule allows taxpayers to determine the amount of their credits on the basis of their 2019 income. This special provision is particularly important for taxpayers whose difference in earnings from 2019 to 2020 may affect their eligibility for the refundable portion of the 2020 credit.

The 2020 credit is subject to a phaseout at the rate of $50 for each additional $1,000 (or fraction thereof) above a high-income threshold of modified adjusted gross income, or MAGI. MAGI is defined as adjusted gross income (AGI) plus the amount of any excluded foreign income. The threshold level is set at $400,000 for a joint return and $200,000 in other cases. Taxpayers entitled to claim the child tax credit have been permitted to adjust their income tax withholding and/or calculate their installment tax payments to reflect their allowed credit amounts. 

For 2021

For 2021, the credit increases and the age for a qualifying child is extended to 17. The credit amount rises to $3,000 (children under age 18) or $3,600 (children younger than 6) and becomes fully refundable to the extent it exceeds the taxes owed.

The credit phaseout generally remains $50 for each $1,000 (or fraction thereof) of modified adjusted gross income above a MAGI threshold. However, the threshold amounts are substantially reduced for 2021. For a joint return or surviving spouse, the threshold is $150,000; for heads of households, $112,500; and for all others, $75,000. Thus, a family with annual MAGI of $150,000 and three children, ages 2, 5, and 11, will be entitled in 2021 to total child tax credits of $10,200, payable in advance payments of $850 per month. 

The child tax credit for 2021 introduces a new feature: advance payments. Taxpayers can receive direct advance payments of their child tax credits, in amounts of $250 or $300 per qualifying child depending on age. The U.S. Treasury plans to start distributing payments, possibly on a monthly basis, as early as July 2021, if feasible. The advance payment program will enable taxpayers to use their benefits during the year.   

Assuming that eligible taxpayers receive advance payments for the last six months of 2021, they will be entitled to claim the balance of their annual credits on their 2021 tax returns. Because the advance payments will represent early receipt of the tax benefits from the credits, the advance payments are not taxable income.

Underpayments or overpayments of advance payments will be reconciled with the credit amount and refund, if any, claimed on tax returns for the year. Taxpayers whose advance payments exceed the allowable credit generally must pay back the excess with their tax returns. However, for lower-income taxpayers, a “safe-harbor amount” of their repayment will be waived or reduced. 

Taxpayers who receive advance payments that are excessive or too low will be able to have their payments adjusted by providing corrected and updated information—e.g., change in marital status or number of qualified children—through an online information portal, likely an updated version of the current non-filer portal, created by the U.S. Treasury. Wage withholding can be adjusted to reflect child tax credits and advance payments. Also, taxpayers can elect not to receive advance payments and wait until filing their tax returns to claim their credit amount.

Taxpayers who weren't required to file a tax return in 2021 and "have a main home in the U.S. for more than half of the year," can use the new IRS Non-Filer Sign-up Tool to be sure that the IRS has their information and can send the credit payments. They may also be able to use it if they didn't receive their full first and second Economic Impact Payments and want to get the third one. There are detailed instructions so be sure to read the document carefully to be sure you qualify.

After 2021 

At present, the 2021 rules for the child tax credit apply only for that year. If the 2021 rules are not extended by further legislation, then the rules generally in effect in 2020 will again become effective, with some inflation adjustments, from 2022 through 2025.

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Tax Deductions Vs. Tax Credits

Qualifying for the Credit

There are two sets of qualifications involved in claiming the Child Tax Credit: The person receiving the credit must be a qualifying taxpayer, and the dependent child also must meet tax-law requirements.

Qualifying taxpayer

Although most taxpayers qualify for the child tax credit by claiming credits with respect to their children or stepchildren, other family members also may qualify if the taxpayer provided more than half of their financial support during the tax year. A taxpayer may be entitled to credits with respect to siblings, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews if they meet the dependency, age, citizenship, and residency requirements. Adopted and foster children also can qualify for the credit.

Only one taxpayer can claim the child tax credit, even if the qualifying child divides time between more than one household during the tax year. If one parent had primary custody of the child, that parent usually receives the tax credit. In cases of joint custody, the parents must reach an agreement about when each will claim the credit—in alternate years or according to some other formula.

In addition to meeting the applicable income and relationship qualifications for the child tax credit, the taxpayer and qualifying dependent(s) must have Social Security numbers before the due date for the taxpayer’s tax return and must report them on the return. Taxpayers who make fraudulent claims for child tax credits will be ineligible to claim such credits for 10 years. A taxpayer who is determined to have made an improper claim due to reckless or intentional disregard of rules and regulations (but not fraud) will be denied credits for two years.

Qualifying child/dependent

The tax law prescribes several factors that determine a child’s eligibility for the child tax credit. To qualify, individuals must be U.S. citizens, U.S. nationals, or U.S. resident aliens and must meet the dependency, age, and residency requirements. They also must have lived with the person who is claiming the tax credit for more than half of the tax year and must be claimed as a dependent on that taxpayer’s return. The child must not have provided more than half of their own support during the year.

For both 2020 and 2021, eligible taxpayers can claim a nonrefundable tax credit of $500 for each dependent other than a qualifying child.

The IRS offers a useful tool to help taxpayers figure out if their child or dependent qualifies for the child tax credit. 

The Child Tax Credit: Impact on Policy and Poverty

The expansion of the child tax credit for 2021 has important policy and economic implications. When the child tax credit was first enacted, it was intended to benefit low- and moderate-income families. Since its enactment in 1997, it has benefited these taxpayers. At higher income levels, the credit is phased out gradually. However, the child tax credit has been criticized regularly for providing little or no benefit to the poorest families, many of whom are not taxpayers and do not file tax returns.

Over the years, frequent amendments increased the credit amount and provided refunds that were limited in amount and scope; at one time, refunds were restricted to taxpayers with three or more children. High-income phaseouts continued, and credit disallowance rules addressed fraudulent, reckless, or improper claims. But still, the credit did not reach the poorest families.

In 2021, for the first time, the significant increase in the credit amount and provision of total refundability extended benefits to the neediest families. Projections of the 2021 child tax credit’s impact estimate that it will reduce childhood poverty by 45%. Together with the other provisions of the American Rescue Plan Act, the reduction in poverty is expected to reach more than 50%. Maximizing this credit’s use and benefits will require an effective public educational and promotional program.    

The expanded and fully refundable child tax credit was enacted as part of the American Rescue Plan Act, a law formally targeted at relieving the economic problems created by the COVID-19 pandemic. It also addresses many limitations considered problematic in the earlier versions of the child tax credit. Nonetheless, the revised credit with its advance payment feature represents a broader recognition of the importance and the substantial cost of raising children and of the role that government can play in supporting families.

The enlarged credit constitutes an enormous financial commitment and suggests that the United States for the first time may be open to establishing a basic income policy of the type provided for families in Canada and many other developed countries. Congressional Democrats strongly supported the increased child tax credit. Although Republicans generally favored some expanded benefits for children, they criticized the version of the child tax credit that was enacted for its cost and for the lack of any work requirement. 

With the expanded credit set to expire at the end of 2021, its broader economic policy implications beyond pandemic recovery may be debated in a future proposal to extend it into 2022 and later years.