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By Kenadi Silcox
July 5, 2021
Woman playing cards in her living room with her two daughters
Getty Images

Monthly payments from this year’s child tax credit are going to be hitting millions of bank accounts this month. But there are still some key aspects of this enhanced credit that parents need to know about.

The child tax credit got a major facelift for 2021, thanks to legislation from the American Rescue Plan. The temporary enhancement upped the maximum amount parents can qualify for from $2,000 to $3,600 for children under 6 and $3,000 for all other children under 18. It also made it so half of the credit will be applied in advance via six monthly payments. Millions of parents will be receiving their first of those payments — worth up to $300 per child — starting on July 15.

With so many changes in such a short period of time, it’s reasonable if you find yourself confused by the nitty gritty portions of the revamped credit. That’s why we’ve reached out to experts in tax policy and financial planning to help you navigate what they say are the most important pieces of knowledge to have about the 2021 child tax credit:

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1. You don’t need any income to qualify

Because the American Rescue Plan removed the minimum earnings floor as a requirement for receiving the child tax credit, families with extremely low or no income are eligible for monthly payments.

In prior years, you had to have income to qualify for the credit, and the amount of the credit was phased in as you earned more income, says Erica York, an economist from Tax Foundation’s Center for Federal Tax Policy.

“So it was not only a benefit related to having children, but also a benefit that incentivized additional work,” she says.

This year’s credit does not phase in, so even if you don’t make enough money to technically be required to file a tax return, you will still receive the full credit for each child in your home.

However, there are maximum adjusted gross income (AGI) limits to qualify for the full benefit: It’s $150,000 for joint-filers, $112,500 for heads of household and $75,000 for single filers, although most single filers who are eligible for the child tax credit should file as head of household. The credit phases out entirely for joint filers with an AGI of $440,000 and above.

2. Some parents may want to opt out

Heads up, freelancers and independent contractors: You may not want the monthly payments. The payments are basically an advance on your future tax refund. So if you typically owe taxes every year, then you’re only getting money you’ll ultimately have to pay back.

Instead, you can opt out of the monthly payments and get the full amount of the credit your family qualifies for when you file your 2021 taxes, which will help lower your overall tax bill. You can use the IRS’s Child Tax Credit Update Portal (CTC UP) to unenroll from the monthly payments.

It might also be a good idea to opt out if you expect your income to dramatically increase between 2020 and 2021.

“Your life situation may have changed since the last time you filed a return,” says Jeremiah Barlow, head of wealth services at Mercer Advisors.

The monthly payments are determined by the information from your most recent tax return. But the amount of credit you ultimately qualify for will be based on your 2021 income and family size.

If you and your spouse have twin 4-year-olds and a joint income of $100,000 in 2020, only to earn $180,000 in 2021, you might owe some money back to the IRS if you take the monthly payments. Why? Because you’ll receive six payments of the maximum amount — $300 per child. But your higher 2021 income qualifies you for a smaller credit, worth up to $237 per child each month. So you’ll essentially have to pay back any difference between what you were paid based on your 2020 income and what you actually qualify for with your 2021 income.

The deadline for opting out of the July 15 payment has already passed, but parents who forgot aren’t doomed. You can still unenroll from all of the rest anytime between now and August 2. As for the money you'll already receive in July, you can stick that in a savings account and hold on to it until tax season if you're worried about owing it back.

3. The enhanced credit could have a major impact on your tax refund next year

While it might be tempting to just take the monthly payments and postpone thinking through the math until next spring when you file taxes, experts say that’d be a mistake. Particularly if you have multiple children and there’s thousands of dollars on the line.

For many parents, opting out of the monthly payments and applying your entire credit as a lump sum come tax season could increase your refund after filing next year. But it may also be the case that you end up with a larger tax refund even if you don’t opt out of advanced payments, depending on factors like your income and when you last updated your tax withholding with your employer.

If you update how much is withheld from your paycheck, factoring in this bigger credit, you might not see a change in your refund, York says. But if you leave your withholding exactly the same as last year, then you could see a change.

“All of that will be very individual,” she says.

Additionally, there is no limit on the number of credits you’re allowed to claim. While this has always been true, it’s more notable this year because the credits are fully refundable. Previously, the child tax credit could only reduce your federal tax liability down to zero, even if the total you qualified for was more than the amount of income taxes you owed. This year, any money leftover after the child tax credits have been applied will be refunded to you. That could have a major impact for middle- and low-income families with several children.

“If you have four kids under 6, those credits add up pretty quickly,” Barlow says.

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4. You can’t update your family or income information until September

Parents whose income or number of children has changed since they last filed taxes should update their information with the IRS to ensure they’re getting accurate monthly payments. Unfortunately, the tool for parents who need to report those changes isn’t scheduled to open up until late September.

That can be frustrating if you’ve seen a significant change, since major changes to your taxable income, marital status or number of children could potentially leave you owing a portion or all of the money from the monthly payments back to the IRS come tax season.

The IRS has put out a provision that protects low-income earners from having to return up to $2,000 in overpayments, but those protections phase out based on people’s income. That’s why it’s important to still update your information once it becomes possible to do so: Once your income status and number of dependents is up-to-date, the IRS will readjust how much money they send you for the remaining months of the year.

5. You won’t get monthly payments for new children until after they’re born or in your custody

Because you won’t be able to change how many children currently live with you in the CTC UP portal until late September, your first few monthly payments will only be for the number of children reported on your last tax return. If you have a child who was born before the portal is live, any missing payments will be sent out via your tax refund.

According to Barlow, children born any time up until 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31 will qualify for the entire 2021 child tax credit, “but the monthly payments would only be on a go-forward basis.”

Additionally, if you adopt a child from the U.S. at any age under 18 at any point in 2021, you will get the full credit.

However, one important thing to note is that unless it’s a newborn or you finalized an adoption in 2021, each child needs to live with you for more than half of the year to be eligible for the child tax credit. If you’re granted full custody or you’re a foster family that takes in a child after July 1, you cannot claim them for the child tax credit. You also can’t claim the credit if the child is not a U.S. citizen, even if you have citizenship.

6. There are no rules about what you spend the money on

Experts want people to understand that the child tax credit payments don't come with any “use it or lose it” conditions the way some family welfare programs like SNAP Food Benefits (sometimes known as food stamps) are designed. Nor are parents required to spend the money on child-specific products or services.

Instead, Daniel Milan, a managing partner atCornerstone Financial Services says parents should first and foremost figure out where the most pressing gaps in their budget are and make spending decisions from there.

“Allocating the money toward essential bills like childcare or rent can be very helpful, especially if you’re at a lower income level,” he says.

If all of your most immediate financial needs are covered, then Milan suggests finding ways to hold onto the money long-term, either through building up your family’s savings or even starting a custodial savings account on behalf of your child.

“That ability to help your child build up their own savings can be invaluable in the long-term,” he says.

More from Money:

Why Some Parents Should Opt Out of Monthly Child Tax Credit Payments

Millennials Aren't Having Kids Because It's Too Expensive

Child Tax Credit Update: You Can Now Change the Bank Account Where the IRS Sends Your Payments