Earned Income Credit
The earned income credit (aka EIC, earned income tax credit, EITC) (IRC §32), enacted in 1975, is a refundable tax credit to lighten the burden of the regressive payroll taxes, which consists of the Social Security tax and the Medicare tax, on the poor. Hence, the credit is only available to those with earned income that is subject to employment taxes. So, for instance, if you received only unemployment income for the year, you will not qualify for the EIC. The base amount of the credit depends on the number of qualifying children for which the taxpayer can claim as dependents, and on the taxpayer's income. To claim the credit, investment income cannot exceed a limit that is adjusted annually for inflation. In 2015, 26 million people claimed the earned income tax credit, and the average credit was $2500 (Source: Statistics for Tax Returns with EITC).
|Maximum AGI |
(Married Filing Jointly)
2019: Investment Income ≤ $3,600
Source: Rev. Proc. 2018-57
|3 or more||$6,557||$50,162 ($55,952)|
2018: Investment Income ≤ $3,500
Source: Rev. Proc. 2017-58
|3 or more||$6,444||$49,298 ($54,998)|
2017: Investment Income ≤ $3,450
Source: Rev. Proc. 2016-55
|3 or more||$6,318||$48,340 ($53,930)|
|2016: Investment Income ≤ $3,400|
|3 or more||$6,269||$47,955 ($53,505)|
|2015: Investment Income ≤ $3,400|
|3 or more||$6,242||$46,997 ($53,267)|
|Source: EITC Income Limits, Maximum Credit Amounts and Tax Law Updates|
The earned income credit is sometimes considered a negative income tax, because, being a refundable tax credit, it is paid to people even if they do not have a tax liability.
In previous years, many taxpayers took the EIC as an advance payment of earned income credit by reducing the tax taken out of their wages. However, this provision, which had been available for many years, was eliminated by the Education Jobs and Medicaid Assistance Act of 2010. IRC §3507, which authorized advanced payments, has been repealed. Hence, after 2010, the earned income credit can only be claimed with the tax return.
Some states also have an EIC. Vermont, for instance, has one of the most generous earned income credits. In 2014, the average EIC recipient received $1900 from the federal government and $600 from Vermont. States may also have different requirements. Vermont, for instance, requires a taxpayer to have at least 1 child, be between ages 25 and 65, receive income from work, and live in a low-income household. So, a low-income wage earner who lives in a middle-class family would not qualify.
The primary advantage of the EIC is that it is the most effective tool for reducing poverty. While many politicians espouse a higher minimum wage to combat poverty, thereby making labor more expensive and employers more inclined to use automation to reduce labor costs, the EIC is only paid to poor families, at no cost to employers. On the other hand, a higher minimum wage would benefit all families, such as teenagers from middle-income families working part-time jobs, which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but the increased cost for labor will reduce demand for that labor, thereby raising the unemployment rate, which usually affects the poor more than anyone else.
The earned income credit is available to single and married people with children. Taxpayers without children can also claim the credit if they are older than 24 and younger than 65 and no one else can claim them as a dependent. However, the earned income credit is larger for people with children and the phaseout limit is much higher.
Married persons filing separately may not claim the EIC. However, if a spouse lived apart from the other spouse for the last half of the tax year, then she may be able to claim the credit as head of household. Nonresident aliens cannot claim the credit, unless they are married and an election is made by the couple to subject their worldwide income to United States tax.
The amount of the earned income credit that can be claimed by the taxpayer depends on income and the number of qualifying children. A qualifying child must satisfy these tests:
- Relationship test: descendants of the taxpayer, stepson, stepdaughter, an eligible foster child, legally adopted child, half-brothers and half-sisters.
- Residency test: Taxpayer's principal place of residency must be located within the United States and the qualifying child must have lived with the taxpayer for more than ½ of the taxpayer's tax year. However, temporary absences are disregarded, such as for school, vacation, medical care, or detention in a juvenile facility.
- Age test: The child must be less than 19 years old at the end of the tax year, or 24, if the child is a full-time student. There is no age test for a child who is permanently and totally disabled at any time during the year. A person is considered permanently and totally disabled if he cannot engage in any substantial gainful activity because of the disability and a physician certifies that the condition is expected to last for at least a year or lead to death.
A child who is married by the end of the tax year, and who files a joint return, cannot be claimed as a qualifying child, unless the return is filed only to claim a refund.
If more than 1 taxpayer can potentially claim a certain child, then tie-breaking rules apply:
- If parents are living apart and filing separately, then:
- The parent with whom the child resided for the longest period during the tax year can claim the EIC.
- If there is no difference between the time periods, then the parent with the highest AGI has priority.
- A parent has priority over nonparents.
- When none of the potential claimants are the child's parent, then the person who had the highest AGI for the tax year has priority.
Earned Income, Disqualifying Income
The amount of the credit is limited by earned income, which includes:
- wages, salary, tips, commissions,
- union strike benefits,
- jury duty pay,
- certain disability pensions,
- self-employment earnings. For self-employed taxpayers, net losses are subtracted from wages or other income earned as an employee, if any.
Earned income does not include interest, dividends, alimony, welfare benefits, veterans' benefits, pensions and annuities, workers compensation, unemployment compensation, nontaxable employee compensation, excludable dependent care benefits, or excludable education assistance.
The earned income credit is not available if disqualifying income exceeds the investment income limit (listed in the table at the top of this page), which is adjusted for inflation annually. Disqualifying income includes:
- taxable and tax-exempt interest
- rent and royalty income
- capital gains
- passive income
Presumably, a taxpayer with large amounts of unearned income does not need the EIC. The EIC cannot be claimed by a taxpayer who claims the foreign income exclusion, regardless of the amount.
How the Earned Income Credit Is Calculated
The earned income credit calculation is rather complicated, but most people can simply consult the EITC tax table in the instructions to Form 1040. If the taxpayer has qualifying children, then Schedule EIC should be filed with Form 1040 or Form 1040A, listing the qualifying children and their Social Security numbers. To calculate the EIC, taxpayers are classified into groups based on filing status and the number of qualifying children: 0, 1, 2, 3 or more.
The EIC calculation is based on the following numbers, which is stipulated by IRC §32, some of which are adjusted for inflation:
- Earned income amount: this is the lowest income that qualifies for the maximum credit.
- Credit percentage: for earned income which is less than the earned income amount, the taxpayer's income is multiplied by the credit percentage to yield the earned income credit.
- Phaseout amount: if the taxpayer's income is greater than this threshold, then the threshold phaseout amount is subtracted from the taxpayer's income to yield the phaseout base.
- The threshold phaseout amount is greater than the earned income base and is set by law, specifically IRC §32. Taxpayers with income between the earned income base and the threshold phaseout amount get the highest EIC available for their group.
- Phaseout percentage: the phaseout base is multiplied by the phaseout percentage, which is, then, subtracted from the maximum credit amount.
- If Income < Earned Income Amount, then
- EIC = Income × Credit %
- If Earned Income Amount < Income < Phaseout Amount, then
- EIC = Maximum EIC for the Taxpayer's Group, which is based on Filing Status and Number of Qualifying Children
- If Income > Phaseout Amount, then
- EIC = Maximum EIC – (Income – Phaseout Amount) × Phaseout %
- Therefore, the EIC is not available when the taxpayer's income becomes high enough, such that: (Income – Phaseout Amount) × Phaseout % ≥ Maximum EIC
EIC Related Penalties
The IRS assesses penalties against taxpayers who fraudulently claim the EIC or flagrantly violates the rules. If the IRS sends a deficiency letter denying the EIC for a taxpayer, then the credit cannot be claimed in future years unless she files Form 8862. The taxpayer can claim the credit if the IRS re-certifies eligibility, in which case, Form 8862 does not have to be filed again unless the IRS denies the EIC again.
Future credits for a taxpayer are denied for 2 years if the taxpayer disregarded the rules in claiming the EIC. Fraud increases the period to 10 years.
Longer Delays for Refunds for Taxpayers Claiming the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit
Starting in 2017, there will be a longer wait for refunds for people claiming the Additional Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is fully refundable, meaning that the taxpayer will receive a refund even if no taxes were paid. The ACTC is refundable, but only to the extent of paid taxes, including employment taxes. Because the regular child tax credit can only offset ordinary tax liability, most poor people mainly benefit from the ACTC. Most other tax credits cannot be used to lower employment tax liability. Other refundable tax credits, such as the Premium Tax Credit for healthcare coverage, are not subject to the delay. However, the whole refund will be delayed, not just the portion attributable to the EITC and the ACTC.
The IRS is required to delay the refunds until at least February 15 so that it has the chance to verify the claimed credits, because, previously, many refunds were paid erroneously because of errors in claiming the refund or from fraud. Therefore, there will be some delay regardless of when the tax return is filed, so taxpayers who want their money sooner should file as soon as possible. Because of the Presidents’ Day holiday, the refunds may be delayed even for early filers until the end of February.
This delay was enacted as a provision under the Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes Act of 2015, often known by its much briefer moniker, the Path Act.
Tax preparers may offer the tax refund sooner, but they are really offering a loan, since the delay is required by law. These loans often have unfavorable terms, so they should be avoided.
The estimated time for refunds can be checked after February 15 using the IRS2Go mobile app, or by checking the Where's My Refund? - It's Quick, Easy and Secure page at irs.gov.
|Maximum AGI |
(Married Filing Jointly)
|2014: Investment Income ≤ $3,350|
|3 or more||$6,143||$46,997 ($52,427)|
|2013: Investment Income ≤ $3,300|
|3 or more||$6,044||$46,227 ($51,567)|
|2012: Investment Income ≤ $3,200|
|3 or more||$5,891||$45,060 ($50,270)|
|2011: Investment Income ≤ $3,150|
|3 or more||$5,751||$43,998 ($49,078)|
|Source: EITC Income Limits, Maximum Credit Amounts and Tax Law Updates|