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What Is the Difference Between a Refundable and a Nonrefundable Credit?

Updated for Tax Year 2020 / June 21, 2021 03:20 PM


A tax credit can substantially reduce the amount of tax you owe, or even make your tax refund bigger. However, not all tax credits are alike. Tax credits can be refundable or nonrefundable, and sometimes partly refundable.

For information on the third coronavirus relief package, please visit our “American Rescue Plan: What Does it Mean for You and a Third Stimulus Check” blog post.


Nonrefundable tax credits

A nonrefundable credit essentially means that the credit can’t be used to increase your tax refund or to create a tax refund when you wouldn’t have already had one. In other words, your savings cannot exceed the amount of tax you owe. For example on your 2020 tax return, if the only credit you’re eligible for is a $500 Child and Dependent Care Credit, and the tax you owe is only $200—the $300 excess is nonrefundable. This means that the credit will eliminate the entire $200 of tax, but you don’t receive a tax refund for the remaining $300. For 2021, the Child and Dependent Care Credit is fully refundable.

Refundable tax credits

Refundable tax credits, on the other hand, are treated as payments of tax you made during the year. When the total of these credits is greater than the tax you owe, the IRS sends you a tax refund for the difference.

Your tax return form will list all refundable tax credits, such as the Earned Income Credit, in the same section you report your tax payments.

Partially refundable tax credit

A partially refundable credit such as the American Opportunity credit,  provides up to 40 percent of the credit as a tax payment. When you claim this credit for education expenses, Form 8863 separately calculates the refundable and nonrefundable portions.

For example, if you calculate a $2,000 American Opportunity credit, a maximum of $800 may be reported as a refundable tax credit with the remaining $1,200 reported as a nonrefundable credit.

Putting it all together

To illustrate how these credits work, assume that your 2020 tax return reports $2,400 of tax before taking the Child and Dependent Care and American Opportunity credits used in the examples above. You first reduce the tax by the $1,700 of nonrefundable credits you claim ($500 for the Child and Dependent Care Credit, plus $1,200 for the American Opportunity Credit). This brings your tax bill down to $700 ($2,400 - $1,700). You then reduce the $700 by the $800 refundable portion of your American Opportunity credit. This not only eliminates the entire $700 of tax, but also gives you a $100 tax refund for the excess.

Remember, when you use TurboTax to prepare your taxes, we’ll ask you simple questions, determine which credits you qualify for, and handle all the calculations to determine what’s refundable and what’s not.

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