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Got kids? Let Uncle Sam help pay for their care via a tax credit

Our neighborhood has been full of kids recently. Last week was our local school district's spring break. Monday was an added day off for the youngsters, as teachers only returned to their schools for a special work day.

It also was a six days of parents juggling child care and their jobs. I got a close up of this from our new next-door neighbors. Mom and dad alternated days off from their jobs so one of them could stay home with their two children, a pre-teen and a young teenager.

Child care is a major challenge for working parents, especially for break periods where the adults must work instead of takin time off themselves. Many, I suspect, operate as a parental tag team like my neighbors.

Regular child care segments are easier to negotiate. Parents already have made post-class arrangements for someone to look after their kiddos in the couple of hours until they get off work. In the summer, extended or day camps offer recreation and supervision.

Unless they have very accommodating family or friends, this child care is an added expense. But some parents are able to recoup a bit of these care costs by claiming the Child and Dependent Care Credit.

No, this tax credit does not, in most cases, cover the full cost of hiring someone to watch your children while you — and your spouse, if you're married — work. But since it is a tax credit, it does reduce your tax liability dollar-for-dollar.

Here's a look at how the Child and Dependent Care Credit works and how much it could help reduce your tax bill.

Child eligibility rules: First, your children must meet the eligibility requirements. They are —

  • The child must be younger than age 13 when the care was/is provided.
  • The child must be claimed as a dependent on your tax return. This also means you must have a Social Security number for the youngster that you enter on your Form 1040.
  • To be your qualifying child, a child must live with you for more than half the year and meet other requirements.

You can find on these and other child tax dependency determinations in my post on the tests a child must meet to be your tax dependent.

Working parents only: While Uncle Sam is happy to help parents pay for child care, he's specific about just which parents get his financial aid.

The Child and Dependent Care Credit is that it is only for working parents. Yes, I get it. Sometimes you need a break from your youngsters when your job is being an unpaid, stay-at-home parent. Uncle Sam gets it, too, but he won't subsidize your mental health me time.

You, and your spouse if you're married, must have earned income from a job in order to claim the care credit.

And the child care you paid for must be necessary for you and your spouse to go to work or to look for employment. The Internal Revenue Service specifically points out that an expense isn't considered work related merely because you had it while you were working. The purpose of the expense must be to allow you to work.

As for just what that is, the IRS says whether your expenses allow you to work or look for work depends on the facts. So be ready to justify the costs if an examiner asks.

Also be aware of the limits on payments to certain child care providers. You can't claim any payments you made to the following to look after your child while you worked:

  • Your current spouse,
  • Your ex-spouse who is the child's parent,
  • Any dependent you list on your Form 1040, or
  • One of your other children who is 18 or younger, regardless of whether they are a dependent on your tax return.

That's right, getting your oldest teenage child to look after his younger sister is just cost of parenting that does not qualify for the federal child care tax break.

Some, but not all, costs covered: With taxes, it's all about the money, regardless of whether you owe or are getting some back.

And when it comes to the Child and Dependent Care Credit, there are a couple of monetary levels that come into play.

First, these is a limit on the total costs you can use to claim the credit. For the 2023 tax year, you can count up to $3,000 spent to care for one child, or $6,000 for two or more youngsters.

Then you must figure just how much of those costs can be turned into the credit.

The actual credit amount is a percentage of your qualified expenses. The percentages range from 20 percent to 35 percent, depending on your adjusted gross income (AGI).

Basically, the credit is larger for lower-income earners. They can claim up to 35 percent of their qualifying child care costs. The percentage amount drops to 20 percent for parents with AGI exceeding $43,000. And no, that AGI amount is not indexed for inflation, so every year it loses a bit of its real-life value due to increased living costs.

The credit at math, as shown in the table below, means that in real dollars, the most child care tax credit you can get as a lower-income working parent is $1,050 for care of one child or $2,100 for costs related to caring for two or more youngsters.

Care costs for 1 child

Care costs for 2 or more children

 x 35% 
$1,050 child care tax credit claim

 x 35% 
$2,100 child care tax credit claim

Finally, note that the Child and Dependent Care Credit is nonrefundable. That means that if your credit amount is larger than your tax liability, you lose that amount.

For example, if you get a $2,100 child care credit and owe $1,800 in taxes when you file, you can only zero out that $1,800 tax bill. The excess $300 from the child care credit cannot be sent to you as a refund.

Claiming the care costs: To claim your child's care costs, you'll have to file Form 2441. That's an excerpt below of page 1, with the arrow (added by me, not the IRS) showing the income ranges and percentages of costs used to figure your credit amount.

Form 2441 child and dependent care expenses part II calculations
See more tax forms and more about them at Tax Forms 2024.

You can find more about Form 2441 in its instructions, as well as through your tax software or by talking with your tax adviser.

Care costs that counts toward the credit: As the math explanations and examples show, the Child and Dependent Care Credit likely won't cover all your kiddos' care costs. But, hey, any tax break is better than none.

So be sure to take it if you and your youngsters qualify. And don't overlook some qualifying costs, especially now that spring's arrival and its short school break reminds us that the months-long summer classroom recess is on its way.

If you're looking for ways to occupy your youngsters over this extended classroom break, consider day camps. These close to home camps not only offer supervised recreation for your children, their costs also are tax credit eligible. Note, however, that only day camp costs count, not overnight programs where kids spend weeks or months.

For your 2023 taxes, if your kiddos spent time at a day camp last year and you didn't hit the maximum allowable care expenses to claim, dig out those receipts. Then use the amounts to max out your child care credit on this year's filing.

As for summer 2024 day camps, you better find one for your youngsters soon. They fill up quickly. Then put documentation of this year's costs into your tax record keeping system, and use them to claim the credit when you file this year's return in 2025.

You also might find these items of interest:



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