In about three weeks, millions of American families will receive the first of six monthly payments of up to $300 per child from the federal government, thanks to an expanded child tax credit.
The payments are a partial advance of a credit that would normally be claimed on next year’s tax return. But to help families pay bills now, post-pandemic, they will get half of the credit early, in monthly payments over the second half of this year.
The vast majority of eligible families — which total as many as 39 million households, with 65 million children — don’t have to do anything to get them, says the Internal Revenue Service, which is distributing the money. The payments will be automatically deposited into recipients’ bank accounts or mailed as checks.
“For a whole lot of people, it will probably go smoothly,” said Elaine Maag, a principal research associate at the Tax Policy Center, a joint effort of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution.
But some low-income families that typically don’t file tax returns need to sign up on a special website to get the payments. It’s uncertain how many children those families have. Estimates range from 2.3 million to well over twice that.
An IRS spokesman, Eric Smith, said in an email that most people eligible for the credit should have received a letter with general information. A second round of more detailed letters should go out in “a few days,” and the IRS or the Treasury Department will probably make an announcement when that occurs. The second letter will give specifics about the family’s total credit, and how much the monthly payment will be. Most people who got the first letter will also get a second letter, Smith said.
The IRS says it will base the payments on tax returns from 2020 or 2019 — or on information given to the agency by people who didn’t have to file returns but registered with the agency last year to receive federal stimulus payments. (Some families aren’t required to file returns, since their incomes are low.)
Families that neither filed tax returns nor gave the IRS their information for stimulus checks can register online for the monthly payments using a special “nonfiler sign-up tool.” “You must take action if you have not filed your 2020 tax return or 2019 tax return,” the IRS says on a website devoted to the child tax credit. (Eligible families that sign up using the tool can also receive stimulus payments if they haven’t received them.)
Recipients can still file a tax return, if they prefer — which may qualify them for other credits as well. The IRS has scheduled free information sessions in a dozen large cities this month and next, mostly to help nonfilers register for the advance payments or file a return if they want. (No cities in Washington state are on the schedule at this time.)
The deadline for filing 2020 federal tax returns was May 17, but people who are owed refunds or aren’t required to file generally don’t pay penalties for filing late, according to the IRS. (Filers who sought automatic extensions have until Oct. 15.)
Families that aren’t required to file may get the monthly payments faster by using the IRS nonfiler tool, because “it may take time to process their return,” David DuFault, an estate planning lawyer with Sodoma Law in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Congress approved the expanded 2021 child tax credit in March as part of the Biden administration’s economic relief legislation. The size of the credit depends on a family’s income, the number of children and their ages. For now, it applies to 2021 only, although President Joe Biden and some members of Congress hope to extend it for years.
Getting part of the credit as monthly payments is a boon to low-income families, which often struggle with fluctuating incomes, said Timothy Flacke, executive director of Commonwealth, a nonprofit group that focuses on financial security.
“This is a really, really big deal,” he said. “They can make financial plans around it.”
The payments will be made on the 15th of each month through December, except for August (when it is scheduled for the 13th because the 15th falls on a weekend). The monthly payments cover half of a family’s estimated child credit; the other half will be paid next year when the family files its tax return.
Some families, however, may not want to get part of the credit early. For them, the IRS has set up another special website, called the “child tax credit update portal,” where recipients can “unenroll” from the advance payments. Users must take steps to verify their identity before using the tool because it allows access to sensitive personal and financial information.
Why would someone opt out? Say a family qualifies for the credit based on its 2020 income but doesn’t expect to be eligible in 2021 because of higher earnings or a change in the number of qualifying children. If it doesn’t opt out, that family may have to repay some or all of the money it receives this year or get a smaller refund when it files its tax return in 2022. Also, some families prefer to receive a large refund when they file their tax returns as a sort of forced savings plan, said Joanna Ain, associate director of policy with Prosperity Now, a nonprofit organization that promotes financial security for low-income people.
“Their tax refund is the only time they see that kind of money,” she said. They may worry that they will spend the cash if it is doled out in smaller amounts, rather than arriving as a lump sum that can help cover pricey items like major appliances, heating systems or car repairs.
Divorced couples with joint custody of children may face a different issue. They often take the child tax credit in alternating years: One spouse claims it one year, the other the next, and so on, DuFault said. But the IRS will probably send the advance payments to the spouse who claimed the credit in 2020 — and who then may have to repay it at tax time next year or get a smaller refund.
To avoid that, the spouse who isn’t supposed to get the credit can opt out of the prepayment. The “correct” spouse may not get advance payments but can claim the full amount of the credit on the tax return next year, said Jeffrey Wood, a certified public accountant and partner at Lift Financial in South Jordan, Utah.
For more details about the credit, the IRS has compiled a list of frequently asked questions. The White House also has a website dedicated to the tax credit, with examples of the credits that families can expect based on their income and family size.
Here are some questions and answers about the 2021 child tax credit:
Q: Who is eligible for the credit?
A: You can get the full credit if your income is under $75,000 for single filers, $150,000 for married couples filing a joint tax return and $112,500 for “head of household” filers — typically, unmarried single parents. The credit begins to shrink above those thresholds, and drops to zero at higher incomes ($240,000 for unmarried taxpayers and $440,000 for married couples, according to examples from the Congressional Research Service).
To check if you can receive the credit, you can use the IRS’ online “eligibility assistant” tool. You’ll need to have your tax return from 2020 or 2019 handy or income statements like Form W-2 or 1099.
Q: How much is the credit for tax year 2021?
A: The total credit is up to $3,600 for each child under age 6 and up to $3,000 for each child age 6 to 17. (Monthly payments will be $250 for older children and $300 for younger ones.)
Previously, the child tax credit offered a maximum of $2,000 per child and wasn’t available for 17-year-olds.
This year, the entire credit is fully “refundable,” meaning that eligible families can get it even if they don’t have earned income or owe no federal income tax. Previously, the refundable portion of the credit was limited to $1,400 per child.
Q: What if I have changed banks?
A: By the end of June, the tax credit update portal should be revised to allow recipients to change their bank account information, said Michael Schmidt, a senior adviser at the Treasury Department.
The department is also working on an option for recipients to get the advance payments on reloadable debit cards, Schmidt said, but that method won’t be available for the start of the credit payment program in July.
The new IRS tax credit tools can be used on computers or smartphones, he said, but the nonfiler tool, in particular, may be awkward to use on mobile devices.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.