The child and dependent care credit provide a tax break for many parents who are responsible for the cost of childcare. Though the credit is geared toward working parents or guardians, taxpayers who were full-time students or who were unemployed for part of the year may also qualify.

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If you paid a daycare center, babysitter, summer camp, or other care provider to care for a qualifying child under age 13 or a disabled dependent of any age, you may qualify for a tax credit on your 2020 taxes of:

  • up to 35% of qualifying expenses of $3,000 ($1,050) for one child or dependent, or
  • up to $6,000 ($2,100) for two or more children or dependents.

Credit increased for Tax Year 2021 Only

The American Rescue Plan signed into law on March 11, 2021 brought significant changes to the amount and way that the child and dependent care tax credit can be claimed only for tax year 2021. The new law not only increases the credit, but also the amount of taxpayers that will benefit from the credit’s highest rate and it also makes it fully refundable. This means that, unlike previous years, you can still get the credit even if you don’t owe taxes.

Changes to the Child and Dependent Care Credit that apply only for tax year 2021 (the taxes you file in 2022) include:

  • The highest credit percentage increased from 35% to 50% of qualifying expenses
  • Qualifying child and dependent care expenses increased from $3,000 to $8,000 for one qualifying person and from $6,000 to $16,000 for two or more qualifying individuals
  • The adjusted gross income (AGI) level at which the credit percentage is reduced is increased from $15,000 to $125,000

For example, previous to tax year 2021 a taxpayer with one qualifying person, $3,000 in qualifying expenses and an AGI of $60,000 would qualify for a nonrefundable credit of approximately $600 (20% x $3,000). By contrast, under the new law for tax year 2021 only, a taxpayer with the same circumstances can potentially claim a refundable credit of approximately $1,500 (50% x $3,000).

For the tax year 2021 the maximum amount of tax-free employer-provided dependent care benefits also increased from $5,000 to $10,500.

Although this new provision only applies to tax year 2021 (the taxes you file in 2022), it can significantly improve your tax return’s bottom line if you’re a working parent responsible for the cost of your dependents' child care.

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Purpose of the child and dependent care credit

The child and dependent care credit is designed to assist working parents and guardians with some of the expenses involved in raising a child or caring for a disabled dependent. The credit,

  • Varies, depending on the taxpayer's earned income,
  • Is based on the expenses paid to provide child or dependent care services so that parents can work, and
  • Reduces the amount of federal income taxes due, which can in turn increase your refund. This frees up more money for some of the other expenses involved in raising a child.

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Qualifications for the child and dependent care credit

You must meet several criteria to qualify for the child and dependent care credit. To qualify, you must meet all of the following:

  • You (and your spouse, if you are married filing jointly) must have earned income for the tax year.
  • You must be the custodial parent or main caretaker of the child or dependent.
  • The child or dependent care service must have been used so that you could work or look for employment.
  • Your filing status must be single, head of household, qualifying widow or widower with a qualifying child, or married filing jointly.
  • Your child or dependent must be under 13 but there is no age requirement if they are disabled and physically or mentally incapable of caring for themself.
  • The childcare provider cannot be your spouse or dependent or the child's parent.

Qualifying expenses for the child and dependent care credit

You may be aware that daycare fees qualify for the child and dependent care credit, but the IRS actually considers much more than just the cost of daycare for this credit. Qualifying expenses also include:

  • Childcare provided by a babysitter or licensed dependent care center.
  • The cost of a cook, housekeeper, maid, or cleaning person who provides care for the child or dependent.
  • Day camp or summer camp fees, even for camps centered around a sport or activity, qualify if the camp was selected to provide care while the parent or parents were at work. However, overnight camps do not qualify.
  • Costs related to before- and after-school care for children under 13.
  • Costs related to a nurse, home care provider, or a care provider for a disabled dependent.

Keep in mind that expenses related to schooling, tutoring, or overnight camps are not qualifying expenses.

Special circumstances

Since every family is different, the IRS has a series of exceptions to the rules in the qualification process. These exceptions allow a greater number of families to take advantage of the credit.

  • For divorced or separated parents, the custodial parent (the parent with whom the child resides for the most nights out of the year) can claim the credit even if the other parent has the right to claim the child as a dependent due to the divorce or separation agreement.
  • You can take the credit for the care of a disabled adult even if you cannot claim her as a dependent because she has too much gross income or because you or your spouse can be claimed as a dependent by someone else.
  • If your spouse is a disabled adult, the IRS waives the requirement for him to have earned income.
  • If your spouse was a full-time student who attended college for at least five months out of the tax year, the IRS considers her to have earned income for each month that she was a full-time student.

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