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Child Tax Credit for 2021

Updated: Jun 21, 2021

The tax law change will have parents jumping up and down for joy!

There have been significant enhancements made to the child tax credit (CTC) by the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). These enhancements temporarily expand the eligibility for, and the amount of, the child tax credit (CTC) for tax years beginning in 2021 and require the IRS to make monthly advance payments of the credit to taxpayers in July through December of 2021.

Under pre-ARPA law, the CTC was $2,000 per "qualifying child." A qualifying child was defined as an under-age-17 child whom you could claim as a dependent (i.e., a child related to you who, generally, lived with you for at least six months during the year), and who was a U.S. citizen or national, or a U.S. resident.

The $2,000 CTC was phased out (reduced) if your modified adjusted gross income (AGI) was over $200,000, or over $400,000 if you filed jointly, at a rate of $50 per $1,000 (or part of a $1,000) by which modified AGI exceeded the threshold amount.

The CTC was also partially refundable—to the extent of 15% of your earned income more than $2,500. An alternative formula for determining refundability applied for taxpayers with three or more qualifying children. But the maximum refundable credit for 2020 was $1,400 per qualifying child.

A $500 non-refundable credit (per dependent) (so-called "family credit") is also allowed for each qualified dependent who is not a qualifying child under the CTC definition.

CTC temporarily expanded for 2021. For 2021, ARPA expands the CTC as to eligibility and amount, as follows:

  1. The definition of a qualifying child is broadened to include 17-year-olds (i.e., children who have not turned 18 by the end of 2021).

  2. The CTC is increased to $3,000 per child ($3,600 for children under age 6 as of the close of the year). But the increased credit amounts are subject to their own phase-out rule.

So, for 2021, the CTC is subject to two sets of phase-out rules:

  • the increased CTC amount (the $1,000 or $1,600 amount) is phased out for taxpayers with modified AGI of over $75,000 for singles, $112,500 for heads-of-households, and $150,000 for joint filers and surviving spouses; and

  • after applying the above phase-out rule to the increased amount, your remaining $2,000 of CTC is subject to the existing phase-out rules (i.e., the $2,000 of credit is phased out for taxpayers with modified AGI of over $200,000/$400,000 for joint filers).

If you are not eligible to claim an increased CTC in 2021, you can still claim the regular $2,000 CTC, subject to the existing phase-out rules.

3. The CTC is fully refundable for 2021 for a taxpayer (either spouse for a joint return) with a principal place of abode in the U.S. for more than one-half of the tax year, or for a taxpayer who is a bona fide resident of Puerto Rico for the tax year.

A member of the U.S. Armed Forces stationed outside the U.S. while serving on extended active duty is treated as having a principal place of abode in the U.S.

The phase-out rules apply regardless of refundability, and the $500 family credit for dependents other than qualifying children remains nonrefundable.

The IRS still needs to establish a program to make monthly (periodic) advance payments (generally by direct deposits) which in total equal 50% of IRS's estimate of the eligible taxpayer's 2021 CTCs. These payments will be made from July 2021 through December 2021. To determine your advance CTC payments, IRS will look at your 2020 return, or, if it is not yet filed, your 2019 return.

If you receive advance CTC payments that are more than the CTC allowable to you for 2021, you will have to repay those excess amounts (by increasing the tax liability reported on your 2021 returns). But, for certain low- and moderate-income taxpayers, the excess may be reduced by a safe harbor amount, limiting the amount by which they will have to increase tax liability, and allowing them to keep a portion of the excess amount.

If you find yourself close to the phase-out thresholds it might be wise to consider putting additional funds in your IRA or HSA account. Trying to defer income and lowering your AGI might be a strategy to utilize to take advantage of the expanded CTC.

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