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New Addition: Adoption Tax Credits

Updated for Tax Year 2021 / October 17, 2021 03:21 PM


Learn how the adoption tax credit works and how you can claim it to get help balancing your finances when you welcome a new family member.

The adoption process can be cumbersome and expensive. In fact, according to U.S. News and World Report, the cost of adopting a child can cost upward of $50,000.

But to provide relief from some of these fees and expenses, the IRS offers an adoption tax credit alongside other favorable tax treatment related to employer-provided adoption assistance. Most adoptive parents have access to these adoption tax benefits.

To learn more about this adoption tax credit, we cover what you need to know below.

What is the adoption tax credit?

The adoption tax credit is a nonrefundable tax credit meant to provide you relief for the qualified costs you pay when adopting a child. The credit adjusts for inflation and amounts to $14,440 in 2021.

To claim the credit, you have to file Form 8839, Qualified Adoption Expenses and meet the modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) limits. Your credit phases out between MAGIs of $216,600 and $256,660 in 2021.

Because of the nonrefundable nature of the credit, if you can't use the entire credit's value in the first year you claim it, you can carry forward any remaining amount for up to five years. For example, if you claim the full credit in 2021 but only have $10,000 of tax liability, the $4,440 credit balance rolls into the following year for adopting an eligible child. The IRS defines an eligible child as any person under the age of 18 or any person who — regardless of age — qualifies as disabled and physically or mentally unable to take care of themselves.

The credit amount you can claim relates to how much you spend on an adoption. For example, if you paid $8,000 in qualified adoption expenses in 2021, you can't claim the full $14,440 credit. Likewise, if you paid $25,000 in expenses, you can only claim the maximum credit value.

What is the special needs exception?

Adopting a child whom the state has determined has special needs comes with specific tax considerations. In the case of the adoption credit, special needs don’t necessarily mean a child has a disability or medical condition. For the adoption credit, a child with special needs is one who's classified as "hard to place" for adoption without financial assistance.

To qualify as a child with special needs, they must meet each of these three conditions:

  • The child is a citizen or resident of the United States.
  • A state determines that the child shouldn't, or couldn't, be returned to the parents' home.
  • The state determines that the child probably wouldn't have been adopted unless assistance was provided.

If you adopted a child with special needs, you are generally eligible to claim the full credit in the year the adoption is finalized.

If you don't know whether the child qualifies in the special needs category, you should review your adoption paperwork and check with your state agency or social worker.

Once you adopt your child and claim the adoption credit, you won't receive additional federal tax benefits related to the adoption in future years. From this point on, your child will qualify as a dependent child on your tax return.

What are qualified adoption expenses?

If you've chosen to adopt a child, you can claim the adoption credit toward any out-of-pocket qualified adoption expenses. You can count these expenses even before you've identified an eligible child.

The IRS defines qualified adoption expenses as any reasonable and necessary expenses directly related to the legal adoption of any child. These become eligible for reimbursement or refund through the adoption credit.

Those expenses include:

  • Reasonable and necessary adoption fees
  • Court costs and attorney fees
  • Home studies
  • Travel, meals, and lodging expenses related to the adoption while away from home

Qualified adoption expenses don't include any expenses you paid to adopt the child of your spouse. In other words, adopting your stepchildren doesn't qualify for eligible adoption expenses.

What are employer-provided adoption benefits?

A taxpayer may be eligible for employer-provided adoption benefits. According to the IRS, employer-provided adoption benefits are amounts your employer paid for qualified adoption-related expenses to you directly or to a third party on your behalf. You can exclude these benefits from your taxable income up to $14,440 for 2021. But you can't use the same expenses for the exclusion as you do for the credit. You can, however, exclude up to the maximum allowable and then take the maximum credit for additional unreimbursed expenses.

However, adoptive parents shouldn't automatically assume they qualify. You can claim the maximum amount of the adoption credit only if you spent that amount in qualified adoption expenses, and they weren't reimbursed by an employer or state agency. You can also claim the full credit if you adopted a person who has special needs.

  • If you spent less than the cap, you'll receive a credit for only the amount you spent.
  • If your modified adjusted gross income is more than $216,600, your credit is reduced until your modified adjusted gross income is $256,660 or more, when the credit is no longer available for 2021.

How can I show proof of my adoption expenses?

You'll need a copy of the adoption certificate signed by the judge. This should show the names of you, your spouse, and the child along with the seal of the court.

In previous years, the IRS required you to attach this adoption documentation to your return, but this no longer applies. You'll still want to keep the documentation for your own records.

You should expect to provide evidence of any expenses you hope to claim for the adoption credit. Also, make sure to save any documentation certifying your adopted child qualifies as a child with special needs. This can include:

  • Signed adoption assistance or subsidy agreement by the state
  • State-issued or county-issued certificate of verification that the child has special needs
  • Certificate that the child is approved to receive adoption assistance

How can I claim the adoption tax credit?

To claim the adoption credit, complete Form 8839 and attach it to your Form 1040. You no longer need to attach adoption documentation with your federal tax return but should keep the documentation for your records.

You can use TurboTax to assist in preparing your Form 8839 as part of your overall tax return preparation.

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