How to Figure Out if You’re Eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit

A mother colors with her three children as her husband work on his computer on the couch.
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At tax time, most of us have a similar MO: Keep as much money as possible in our pockets. 

The earned income tax credit, or EITC, is a tax incentive you may be eligible for if you have — as the name implies — earned income. But what is earned income tax credit, exactly? Is it just for parents? What are the qualifying income limits? And just how much does it get you, anyway?

What Is Earned Income Tax Credit?

Specifically, the earned income tax credit is for individuals and couples who’ve earned some income, but not a whole lot of it, particularly when they have children to support.

And to be clear, it’s a credit, not a deduction… which means it directly reduces the amount of tax dollars you owe. A deduction, on the other hand, reduces how much of your income is subject to taxation. Long story short, but it’s even better than a tax deduction in most cases, and could substantially lower your tax liability or get you a bigger refund.

But how do you know if you qualify?

Who Qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit?

The basic metric for earned income tax credit qualification is easy to oversimplify: If you have kids and you don’t make much money, you may very well be a candidate. But as with all things IRS, there are lots of nitty-gritty specifics that can make or break your eligibility.

The first requirement is right there in the name: You must have earned income. You’ll also need to:

  • Have a Social Security number.
  • Have been a U.S. citizen or resident alien for the entirety of the tax year in question. 
  • Be at least 25 years old, but not over 65.

If you don’t have children, you may be eligible based solely on low income. In tax year 2019, you’ll need to have earned an adjusted gross income, or AGI, of:

  • Less than $15,570 as a single filer.
  • Less than $21,370 for married couples filing jointly.

Otherwise, the income limits depend on the number of children you have — and the children must meet all qualifications, which include age and residency requirements, and a Social Security number of their own.

2019 Income Limits for Earned Income Tax Credit

Filing status 0 qualifying
children
1 qualifying child 2 qualifying children 3+ qualifying children
Single, head of household or widowed $15,570 $41,094 $46,703 $50,162
Married filing jointly $21,370 $46,884 $52,493 $55,952

Source: irs.gov

Additionally, there are some special rules for military and clergy members, as well those who earn select types of disabilities benefits. Those rules will help you determine whether certain monies can be claimed as earned income and applied toward eligibility credit.

How Much Can You Get From the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Although those without children may be eligible for a small earned income tax benefit, the largest credits go to those who do have qualifying children. For tax year 2019: 

  • Those who have three or more can receive a maximum amount of $6,557. 
  • Those with two qualifying children can receive up to $5,828.
  • Those with one qualifying child can receive up to $3,526.
  • Those with no qualifying children, but who do meet the income requirements outlined above, can receive up to $529.

FROM THE TAXES FORUM

How to Get the Earned Income Tax Credit

Eligible for the earned income tax credit and ready to see its effect on your return?

The first thing you need to do is to file a tax return — even if you don’t owe any taxes or are not otherwise required to file. You can use U.S. tax forms 1040EZ, 1040A or 1040 to claim the earned income tax credit if you don’t have qualifying children, but you’ll need to include Schedule EITC with your 1040 if you do. You can also gather all the necessary documentation and have a tax professional do the paperwork for you, or take advantage of the IRS online Free File tool. 

Then, sit back, relax, and be patient. By law, the IRS can’t issue your refund before mid-February if you claimed the earned income tax credit on your return. 

But don’t worry — it’ll be worth it… even if you have to immediately spend it all on diapers and Lunchables. Parenthood, eh?

Jamie Cattanach’s work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Huffington Post, The Motley Fool and other outlets. Learn more at www.jamiecattanach.com.