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Earned Income Credit

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Earned Income Credit

The United States federal earned income tax credit or earned income credit (EITC or EIC) is a refundable tax credit for low- and medium-income individuals and couples, primarily for those who have qualifying children. When the credit exceeds the amount of taxes owed, it results in a tax refund to those who claim the credit. For a person or couple to claim one or more persons as their qualifying child(ren), the relationship, age, and shared residency requirements must be met, as well as some other requirements. U.S. tax forms 1040EZ, 1040A, or 1040 can be used to claim EIC without qualifying children. To claim the credit with qualifying children, 1040A or 1040 must be used along with Schedule EIC attached.[1]

EIC phases in slowly, has a medium-length plateau, and then phases out more slowly than it phased in. And since the credit phases out at 21% (more than one qualifying child) or 16% (one qualifying child), it is always preferable to have one more dollar of actual salary or wages (although technically, since the EIC table moves by fifty dollar increments, it's always preferable to have an extra fifty-dollar increment of salary or wages).

For tax year 2012, the maximum EIC for a single person or couple filing without qualifying children is $475. The maximum EIC with one qualifying child is $3,169, with two children is $5,236, and with three or more qualifying children is $5,891.[2][3][4] These amounts are indexed annually for inflation.

The earned income tax credit has been part of political debates in the United States regarding whether raising the minimum wage or increasing EIC will better address shortages of good-paying jobs, as seems to be frequently the case for modern economies.[5][6][7]


Foster children also count provided either the child has been officially placed or is a member of one’s extended family. A younger single parent cannot claim EIC if he or she is also claimable as a qualifying child of their parent or another older relative, which can happen in some extended family situations. This restriction does not apply to a married couple who are claiming EIC with a child, even if one or both spouses are under the age of 19. A person claiming EIC must be older than his or her qualifying child unless the “child” is classified as "permanently and totally disabled" for the tax year (physician states one year or more). A qualifying “child” can be up to and including age 18. A qualifying “child” who is a full-time student (one long semester or equivalent) can be up to and including age 23. And a person classified as "permanently and totally disabled" (one year or more) can be any age and count as one’s qualifying “child” provided the other requirements are met. Parents claim their own child(ren) if eligible unless they are waiving this year's credit to an extended family member who has higher adjusted gross income. There is no support test for EIC. There is a six month plus one day shared residency test.[2][8]

A qualifying child can be a person's daughter, son, stepchild, or any further descendant (such as grandchild, great grandchild, etc.) or a person's brother, sister, half sister, half brother, stepbrother, stepsister, or any further descendant (such as niece, nephew, great-nephew, great-great-niece, etc.). A qualifying child can also be in the process of being adopted provided he or she has been lawfully placed, as well as an unrelated foster child who has been officially placed.

Enacted in 1975, the initially modest EIC has been expanded by tax legislation on a number of occasions, including the widely-publicized Reagan Tax Reform Act of 1986, and was further expanded in 1990, 1993, and 2001, regardless of whether the act in general raised taxes (1990, 1993), lowered taxes (2001), or eliminated other deductions and credits (1986).[9]

In the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the EIC was temporarily expanded for two specific groups: married couples and families with three or more children; this expansion was extended through December 2012 by H.R. 4853, the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010. Effective for the 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 filing seasons, the EIC will support these taxpayers by:

  • Increasing benefits for larger families by creating a new category or “third tier” of the EIC for families with three or more children. In this tier, the credit phases in at 45 percent of income (up from 40 percent), effectively increasing the maximum credit for these families by almost $600.
  • Increasing marriage penalty relief by raising the income threshold at which the EIC begins to phase out for married couples to $5,000 above the amount for unmarried filers, thereby giving MFJ filers a longer plateau. The combined plateau and phase-out range for married filing jointly is still not double that for single filers, and thus there still is a marriage penalty, just less than there used to be.[3]

Today, the EITC is one of the largest anti-poverty tools in the United States (despite the fact that most income measures, including the poverty rate, do not account for the credit).

Other countries with programs similar to the EITC include the United Kingdom (see: working tax credit), Canada, New Zealand, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, France and the Netherlands. In some cases, these are small. For example, the maximum EITC in Finland is €290. Sweden has a medium credit with the maximum slightly above 21 000 Swedish kronor or about $3000 US. The ("jobbskatteavdrag" was introduced in 2006 and expanded in consecutive steps 2007–2010). Others are larger than the U.S. credit, such as the UK's working tax credit, which is worth up to £7782.

As of early 2012, 26 states have enacted state EITCs: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.[10] Some of these state EICs are refundable, and some are not. In addition, a few small local EICs have been enacted in San Francisco, New York City, and Montgomery County, Maryland.

Earned income

Earned income is defined by the United States Internal Revenue Code as income received through personal effort,[11] with the following as the main sources:[8]

  • Wages, salaries, tips, commissions, and other taxable employee pay.
  • Net earnings from self-employment.
  • Gross income received as a statutory employee.[12]
  • Disability payments through a private employer's disability plan received prior to minimum retirement age (62 in 2011).[13]
  • Nontaxable combat pay received by a member of the U.S. armed services which he or she elects to include for purposes of EIC calculation. This is an all-or-none election. For each tax year, the service member must elect to include either all of the combat pay or none of it.

Qualifying children

A person or couple claiming EIC with one or more qualifying children need to fill out and attach Schedule EIC to their 1040 or 1040A. This form asks for the child(ren)'s name, social security number, year of birth, whether an older "child" age 19 to 23 was classified as a student for the year (full-time status for at least one long semester or equivalent time period), whether an older "child" is classified as disabled during the year (doctor states one year on more), the child's relationship to claimant, and the number of months the child lived with the claimant in the United States.[14]

To claim a person as qualifying child, the following requirements of relationship, age, and shared residence must be met.[8][14][15]


In the case of a married couple filing jointly, if one spouse is related to the child by any of the below relationships, both spouses are considered related to the child.

The claimant must be related to their qualifying child through blood, marriage, or law. The qualifying child can be:[2]

  • a person's daughter, son, stepchild, or any further descendant (such as grandchild, great grandchild, etc.),
  • or a person's brother, sister, half sister, half brother, stepbrother, stepsister, or any further descendant (such as niece, nephew, great-nephew, great-great-niece, etc.),
  • or a foster child officially placed by an agency, court, or Indian tribal government. Authorized placement agencies include tax-exempt organizations licensed by states as well as organizations authorized by Indian tribal governments to place Native American children.
  • or an adopted child, including a child in the process of being adopted provided he or she has been lawfully placed.

A child might classify as the qualifying child of more than one adult family member, at least initially. For example, in an extended family situation, both a parent and an uncle may meet the initial standards of relationship, age, and residency to claim a particular child. In such a case, there is a further rule: If a single parent or both parents, whether married or not, can claim the child (residency and age) but choose to waive the child to a non-parent, such as a grandparent or uncle or aunt, this non-parent can claim the child only if they have a higher adjusted gross income (AGI) than any parent who has lived with the child for at least six months.

This still remains the parent's choice. Provided the parent has lived with the child for at least six months and one day, the parent can always choose to claim his or her child for purposes of the earned income credit. In a tiebreaker situation between two unmarried parents, the tiebreak goes to the parent who lived with the child for the longest. In a tiebreaker between two non-parents, the tiebreak goes to the person with the higher AGI. And in a tiebreaker between a parent and non-parent, the parent wins by definition. These tiebreaker situations only occur if more than one family member actually file tax returns in which they claim the same child. On the other hand, if the family can agree, per the above and following rules, they can engage in a limited amount of tax planning as to which family member claims the child.[8]


A single parent younger than age 19 living in an extended family situation is potentially claimable as the qualifying "child" of an older relative. And a single parent under age 24 who is also a full-time college student (one long semester or equivalent) living in an extended family situation is also potentially claimable. If so, the younger single parent cannot claim EIC. This rule does not apply to a married couple who are claiming EIC with a child, even if one or both spouses are under the age of 19. (This rule also does not apply if the older relative is not required to file a tax return, and subsequently either does not file or only files to receive a full refund of taxes withheld.)

Generally, one sibling claiming another as their qualifying child must be older. In the case of a married couple filing a joint return, only one of the spouses must be older. An exception to the must-be-older-rule is the case of a qualifying child who is classified as "permanently and totally disabled" (physician states one year or more). Such a "child" can be any age and the age requirement is considered to be automatically met (of course the relationship and shared residency requirements must still be met).

The standard rule is that the qualifying "child" must be under the age of 19 at the end of the tax year. That is, the younger person can be 18 years and 364 days old on December 31 and the age requirement is met.

This age limit is extended for a qualifying "child" who is also a full-time student during some part of five calendar months. This young adult merely needs to be under age 24 at the end of the tax year for the age requirement to be met (relationship and residency requirements must still be met). That is, the young adult who is full-time for at least part of five different months can be 23 years and 364 days on December 31 and meet the age requirement to be someone else's qualifying "child." The standard Fall semester of a university, in which classes start in late August and continue through September, October, November, and early December, counts as part of five calendar months. And a similar conclusion applies to the standard Spring semester. However, the five months need not be consecutive and can be obtained with any combination of shorter periods. A full-time student is a student who is enrolled for the number of hours or courses the school considers to be full-time attendance. High school students who work in co-op jobs or who are in a vocational high school program are classified as full-time students. Schools include technical, trade, and mechanical schools.

A person who is classified as "permanently and totally disabled" (physician states one year or more) can be any age and the age requirement is automatically met.[2] More fully, the definition of "permanently and totally disabled" is that a person has a mental or physical disability, cannot engage in substantial gainful activity, and a physician has determined that the condition has lasted or is expected to last one year or more (or that it can lead to death).[8]

Shared residence

The claimant must live with their qualifying child(ren) within the fifty states and/or District of Columbia of the United States for more than half the tax year (per instructions, six months and one day is listed as 7 months on Schedule EIC). U.S. military personnel stationed outside the United States on extended active duty are considered to live in the U.S. for purposes of the EIC. Extended active duty means the person is called to duty for an indefinite period or for a period of more than 90 days (which is still considered to be extended active even if the period ends up being less than 90 days).

Temporary absences, for either the claimant or the child, due to school, hospital stays, business trips, vacations, shorter periods of military service, or jail or detention, are ignored and instead count as time lived at home.[2] "Temporary" is perhaps unavoidably vague and generally hinges or whether the claimant and/or the child are expected to return, and the IRS does not provide any substantial guidance past this. If the child was born or died in the year and the claimant's home was the child's home, or potential home, for the entire time the child was alive during the year, this counts as living with the claimant, and per instructions, 12 months is entered on Schedule EIC.

Unlike the rules for claiming a dependent, there is no rule that a qualifying child not support herself or himself. A child who supports himself or herself can still qualify as a qualifying child for purposes of the EIC. There is an exception for older married "children." If an otherwise qualifying child is married, the claimant needs to be able to claim this child as a dependent (and the married couple must have low enough income so that they are not required to file a return and are either not filing or are filing only for the purpose of claiming a refund on withheld taxes).[8][14][16]

Other requirements

Investment income cannot be greater than $3,200 in 2012.

A claimant must be either a United States citizen or resident alien. In the case of married filing jointly where one spouse is and one isn't, the couple can elect to treat the nonresident spouse as resident and have their entire worldwide income subject to U.S. tax, and will then be eligible for EIC.

Filers both with and without qualifying children must have lived in the 50 states and/or District of Columbia of the United States for more than half the tax year (six months and one day). Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and other U.S. territories do not count in this regard. However, a person on extended military duty is considered to have met this requirement for the period of the duty served.

Filers who are not claiming a qualifying child must be between the ages of 25 and 64 inclusive. For a married couple without a qualifying child, only one spouse must be within this age range. For a single person with a qualify child, there is no age requirement per se other than the requirement that the single person not himself or herself be claimable as another relative's qualifying child (see Age section above). A married couple with at least one qualifying child is only occasionally classified as claimable by another relative, especially if the married couple has earned income and elects to claim EIC.

All filers and all children being claimed must have a valid social security number. This includes social security cards printed with "Valid for work only with INS authorization" or "Valid for work only with DHS authorization."[8]

Single, Head of Household, Qualifying Widow(er), and Married Filing Jointly are all equally valid filing statuses for EIC. In fact, depending on the income of both spouses, Married Filing Jointly can be advantageous in some circumstances because, in 2009, the phase-out for MFJ for begins at $21,450 whereas phase-out begins at $16,450 for the other filing statuses. A couple who is legally married can file MFJ even if they lived apart the entire year and even if they shared no revenues or expenses for the year, as long as both spouses agree. However, if both spouses do not agree, or if there are other circumstances such as domestic violence, a spouse who lived apart with children for the last six months of the year and who meets other requirements can file as Head of Household.[17][18] Or, for a couple that is split up but still legally married, they might consider visiting an accountant at separate times and perhaps even signing a joint return on separate visits. There is even an IRS form that can be used to request direct deposit into up to three separate accounts.[19] In addition, if a person obtains a divorce by December 31, that will carry, since it is marital status on the last day of the year that controls for tax purposes. In addition, if a person is "legally separated" according to state law by December 31, that will also carry.[20] The only disqualifying filing status for purposes of the EIC is married filing separately.[2][8]

EIC phases out by the greater of earned income or adjusted gross income.

A married couple in 2010, whose total income was just shy of $21,500, but who had more than $3,100 of investment income, would have received the maximum credit for their number of qualifying children, but because of the rule that for any claimant—whether single of married, with or without children—that investment income cannot be greater than $3,100, will instead receive zero EIC. This is an edge case, but there are income ranges and situations in which an increase of investment dollars can result in a loss of after-tax dollars. (Instead of $21,500, the phase-out for Single, Head of Household, and Qualifying Widow(er) begins at $16,450.)

In normal circumstances, EIC phases out relatively slowly, at 16% or 21% depending on the number of children.

Disallowances for reckless or fraudulent claims

A person or couple will be disallowed EIC for two years if they claim EIC when not eligible and the IRS determines the "error is due to reckless or intentional disregard of the EIC rules." A person or couple will be disallowed for ten years if they make a fraudulent claim. Form 8862 is required after this time period in order to be reinstated. However, this form is not required if EIC was reduced solely because of mathematical or clerical error.[21]

Example(s) for 2012 from IRS Pub. 596

Cynthia and Jerry Grey have two children ages 6 and 8. For tax year 2012, one spouse made $10,000 in wages and the other spouse made $15,000, plus the couple received $525 on interest from a savings account. Since they are into the phase-out range, their EIC will phase out by the greater of earned income or adjusted gross income. So, they will look up in the EIC table $25,525 for MFJ with two children, and this amount is $4,557. Since they are claiming children, the Greys will also need to attach Schedule EIC to their tax return which will ask for each child, the child's name, social security number, year of birth, relationship to couple, and months lived with couple in the United States during 2012. If the Greys use 1040A, they will enter $4,557 on line 38a. If they use form 1040, they will enter $4,557 on line 64a.[8]

EIC Graph, 2006



The EITC is the largest poverty reduction program in the United States. Almost 21 million American families received more than $36 billion in payments through the EITC in 2004. These EITC dollars had a significant impact on the lives and communities of the nation's lowest paid working people. The Census Bureau, using an alternative calculation of poverty, found that the EITC lifted 5.4 million above the poverty line in 2010.

The stimulus effects of the EITC and other consumption-augmenting policies have been challenged by more recent and rigorous studies. Haskell (2006) finds that the unique spending patterns of lump-sum tax credit recipients and the increasingly global supply chain for consumer goods is counter-productive to producing high, localized multipliers. He places the local multiplier effect somewhere in the range of 1.07 to 1.15, more in line with typical economic returns. The lower multiplier is due to recipients emphasizing "big-ticket" durable good purchases, which are typically produced elsewhere, versus locally-produced products and services such as agricultural products or restaurant visits. However, Haskell points to a silver lining: there are perhaps more important benefits from recipients who use the credit for savings or investment in big-ticket purchases that promote social mobility, such as automobiles, school tuition, or health-care services.[22][23]

Due to its structure, the EIC is effective at targeting assistance to low-income families. By contrast, only 30% of minimum wage workers live in families near or below the federal poverty line, as most are teenagers, young adults, students, or spouses supplementing their studies or family income.[24][25] Opponents of the minimum wage argue that it is a less efficient means to help the poor than adjusting the EITC.[26]

EIC follows a pattern of going up a hill, traveling along a plateau, and then going back down the hill more slowly than it went up. For example, a married couple with two qualifying children and yearly income of seven thousand dollars will receive EIC of $2,810 (going up the hill). At fifteen thousand dollars, this couple will receive EIC of $5,036 (plateau). And at twenty-five and thirty-five thousand dollars, this same couple with their two children will receive EIC of $4,285 and $2,179 respectively.[2]

A single person (such as a single parent, aunt, uncle, grandparent, older sibling, etc.) goes up the hill at the same rate and will receive the same maximum EIC for two qualifying children of $5,036 at plateau. But the single person has a shorter plateau. And thus, a single person with two qualifying children and income of twenty-five and thirty-five thousand will receive EIC of $3,230 and $1,124 respectively (going down the hill).[2]

EIC phases out at 16% with one qualifying child and at 21% for two children and three or more children. And thus it is always preferable to have an extra fifty dollars of actual earned income (the table for EIC steps in increments of fifty dollars).[2]

The plateau range for Married Filing Jointly continues for five thousand dollars longer than does the plateau for the other filing statuses and thus MFJ can be advantageous for some income ranges. Single, Head of Household, and Qualifying Widow(er) are all equally valid and eligible filing statuses for claiming EIC. The only disqualifying status is Married Filing Separately. However, a couple can file as Married Filing Jointly even if they lived apart for the entire year if legally married and both agree.[2]


It is difficult to measure the cost of the EITC to the U.S. federal government. At the most basic level, federal revenues are decreased by the lower, and often negative, tax burden on the working poor for which the EITC is responsible. In this basic sense, the cost of the EITC to the Federal Government was more than $36 billion in 2004.

It is also estimated that between 22% and 30% of taxpayers claiming the EITC on their tax returns do not actually qualify for it. This led to an additional cost to the government (in 2010) of between $8 and $10 billion.[27]

At the same time, however, this cost may be at least partially offset by two factors:

  • any new taxes (such as payroll taxes paid by employers) generated by new workers drawn by the EITC into the labor force;
  • taxes generated on additional spending done by families receiving earned income tax credit.

Additionally, some economists have noted that the EITC might cause a reductions in entitlement spending that result from individuals being lifted out of poverty. However, because the pre-tax income determines eligibility for most state and federal benefits, the EITC rarely changes a taxpayer's eligibility for state or federal aid.

Uncollected tax credits

Millions of American families who are eligible for the EITC do not receive it, leaving billions of additional tax credit dollars unclaimed. Research by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Internal Revenue Service indicates that between 15% and 25% of households who are entitled to the EITC do not claim their credit, or between 3.5 million and 7 million households.

Many nonprofit organizations around the United States, sometimes in partnership with government and with some public financing, have begun programs designed to increase EITC utilization by raising awareness of the credit and assisting with the filing of the relevant tax forms. One example is the Claim it! campaign in Minnesota that launched in 2006 to help Minnesotans claim the EITC.[28]

The state of California requires employers to notify every employee about the EITC every year, in writing, at the same time W-2 forms are distributed.[29]

Storefront tax prep, “RACs,” prep and account fees, third-party debt collection

RALs (Refund Anticipation Loans) are short term loans on the security of an expected tax refund, and RACs (Refund Anticipation Checks) are temporary accounts specifically to wait to receive tax refunds, which are then paid by a check or debit card from the bank less fees. The combination of Earned Income Credit, RALs, and RACs has created the main market for the storefront tax preparation industry, including the familiar companies of H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt, and Liberty Tax, as well as smaller chains and independent practitioners. A 2002 Brookings Institution study of Cleveland taxpayers found that 47 percent of filers claiming EIC purchased RALs, as compared to 10 percent of those not claiming EIC. The tax preparation industry responded that at least one-half of RAL customers included in the IRS data actually received RACs instead.[30][31]

These financial products have been criticized on various grounds, including inflated prices for tax preparation, account fees, RAL interest rates, as well as the practice of third-party debt collection (this used to be called "cross-collection" which hinted at the practice, but tax prep companies now to seem more vaguely refer to the practice merely as "previous debt").[32][33] This practice occurs when one RAL- or RAC-issuing bank collects for another. That is, HSBC or Santa Barbara Bank & Trust (in recent years) will take all or part of a client's current year tax refund for purposes of third-party debt collection, and it is unclear how broad are the types of debts for which the banks collect.[34] This contrasts with the more limited types of debt collected for by the IRS. This practice of one bank collecting debt for another may not be adequately disclosed to the tax preparation client; on the other hand, some clients may fail to disclose obligations that result a governmental seizure of their refunds.[35] With both RALs and RACs, the client grants the bank first rights to their tax refund, and both carry the same risk of third-party bank collection.

Advertisement phrases such as "Rapid Refund" have been deemed deceptive and illegal, since these financial products do not speed remittances beyond the routine automation of tax return processing, and do not make it clear that these are loan applications. Beginning with 2011 tax season, the IRS announced that they would no longer provide preparers and financial institutions with the “debt indicator” that assisted banks in determining whether RAL applications were approved.[36][37] Beginning with the 2013 tax season, major banks are no longer offering RALs but only RACs.[38][39]

However, a March 2013 article in CNN Money reported that tax prep companies are offering a hodgepodge of financial products similar to RALs. The article further states that, "The NCLC [National Consumer Law Center] also found that some shady tax preparers are even offering tax refund loans to lure taxpayers into their offices, but have no intention of lending them the money."[40]

See also



External links

Taxpayer info/tools:

  • IRS EITC Assistant, which can help determine if you qualify for EITC
  • IRS 1040 Instructions 2010, Earned Income Credit instructions on pages 45–48, optional worksheets 49–51, credit table itself 51–58. Only required attachment is Schedule EIC if one is claiming a qualifying child.
  • IRS Schedule EIC. A person or couple claiming qualifying child(ren) needs to attach this form to the 1040 or 1040A tax return.
  • IRS Publication 596 – Earned Income Credit, a publication aimed at people who will potentially be claiming the credit.


  • National EITC Outreach Campaign,
  • National Community Tax Coalition, an organization that supports the EITC and tries to help make sure people claim it
  • Boston EITC Campaign
  • Tax Credits for Working Families


  • Green Book provides historical information, including previous EITC parameters. (The version linked to here is the 2004 edition. Note: it's not published anuually.)

Policy Analysis:

  • Congressional Budget Office report for Senate Finance Committee, on "the Effects of Increasing the Federal Minimum Wage Versus Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit" (January 9, 2007)
  • New Research Findings on the Effects of the Earned Income Tax Credit, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 11, 1998
  • The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): Percentage of Total Tax Returns and Credit Amount by State a Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report
  • Brookings Institution
  • The Hidden Welfare State: Tax Expenditures and Social Policy in the United States, Christopher Howard, Princeton University Press, 1997. Mr. Howard discusses the mortgage interest deduction, employer pensions, EITC, and the targeted jobs tax credit as examples of tax expenditures.


  • Boston Tax Help podcast. Produced by Craig Far-Corporate/Community Partnerships/Boston EITC Campaign
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