The Earned Income Credit rules, explained

Overview of the rules for the earned income credit (EIC)

By: Catherine Martin  /  May 03, 2021

The Earned Income Credit (EIC) is one of the largest anti-poverty programs in the United States. It was first created in 1975 as a work incentive for people who have low-to-moderate incomes, however, the rules have changed since.

The IRS estimates that in 2020, about 25 million eligible workers and families received about $62 billion in EIC refunds. That’s an average of $2,461 per individual or household.

The EIC is a refundable tax credit. This means if the credit amount is more than the taxpayer owes in taxes, the taxpayer will get the rest as a refund.

The rules for qualifying for the credit are extensive and are easily confusing, which may help explain why only four out of five of eligible taxpayers claim it. There are as many as 13 rules to qualify for the EIC. And as is usually true in the tax code, there are even more exceptions and details in most rules that can make or break a taxpayer’s eligibility.

To qualify, everyone must meet eight general eligibility rules

These eight rules apply to all taxpayers, regardless of whether they have a qualifying child for the EIC.

Rule 1: Taxpayers’ adjusted gross income (AGI) and earned income must each be less than the limit.

Taxpayers can qualify for the EIC only if their AGI and their earned income are each below a certain limit. The limit changes based on the taxpayer’s family size, filing status, and the tax year. “Earned income” generally includes income from work performed, farm income, and certain disability payments.

Dollar limits on AGI and earned income to qualify for the EIC

For 2020 returns, the taxpayer’s earned income and AGI must each be less than these limits:

Filing status

Qualifying children claimed
Zero One Two Three or more

Single, Head of Household, or Qualifying Widow(er)

$15,820 $41,756 $47,440 $50,594
Married filing jointly $21,710 $47,646 $53,330

$56,844

Maximum credit allowed* $538 $3,584 $5,920

$6,660

*Keep in mind that these are maximum credit numbers. Depending on other factors, taxpayers may qualify for less than these amounts. Taxpayers should claim only the amount of credit they qualify for, up to the limit.

Rule 2: Taxpayers’ investment income must be less than the limit.

To qualify, taxpayers’ investment income must be less than $3,650 for all filing statuses (2020). Like the AGI and earned income limit, this number is adjusted for inflation.

Beginning in 2021, the investment income limit is $10,000. The $10,000 limit will be adjusted for inflation beginning in 2022.

Rule 3: Taxpayers must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN).

To claim the EIC, the taxpayer, spouse, and any qualifying children listed on the Schedule EIC (if applicable) must all have valid SSNs issued before the return’s due date (including extensions). The SSN must be valid for employment.

Beginning in 2021, if a qualifying taxpayer has an SSN but their child does not, the taxpayer may claim EIC for taxpayers without qualifying children.

For additional information on SSN cards that read “Not valid for employment” or “Valid for work with INS or DHS authorization” and other situations, see IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 1 – Rules for Everyone.

Rule 4: Married taxpayers can’t file separately.

To be eligible to claim the EIC, married taxpayers can’t file separate returns. If a married couple can’t agree to file jointly, they must use the married filing separately status and lose the credit. That’s unless one or both qualify for head of household filing status. In other words, if taxpayers are married and want to claim the EIC, they can file only jointly or, if qualified, as head of household.

Beginning in 2021, a permanent change allows certain married taxpayers to file as married filing separately and claim EIC.

Under the new rules, generally, an individual who lives with a qualifying child and who has a decree, instrument, or agreement other than a divorce decree and doesn’t live with their spouse by the end of the year may be eligible for EIC.

Also see, “Overview of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)”, for further questions about the Act.

For more, see IRS Publication 501Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information.

Rule 5: Taxpayers must be U.S. citizens or residents all year.

If a taxpayer was a “nonresident” for any part of the tax year, he or she can’t claim the EIC. That’s unless the nonresident is married and filing jointly with a U.S. resident. Filing jointly allows the nonresident spouse to be treated as a U.S. resident.

However, by filing a joint return, the couple will owe taxes on their worldwide income, so they must weigh the tax benefits of their filing options.

For information on residency status, see IRS Publication 519U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens.

Rule 6: Taxpayers can’t file Form 2555, Foreign Earned Income.

If taxpayers file Form 2555 to exclude income they earned in foreign countries or to deduct or exclude a foreign housing amount, they can’t claim the EIC.

Rule 7: Taxpayers must have earned income.

Even though taxpayers’ earned income must be below a certain limit to claim the EIC, they must have some earned income to be eligible.

Determining what counts as earned income can be tricky. Generally, it means income that taxpayers have worked for, such as wages, salaries, tips, and other types of employee compensation – but only if those amounts are included in the taxpayer’s gross income for the taxable year.

For tax years 2020 and 2021, taxpayers may calculate EIC based on 2019 earned income if 2019 is higher and the substitution would result in higher EIC.

For more, check out IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 1 – Rules for Everyone.

Rule 8: Taxpayers can’t be a qualifying child of another taxpayer.

Taxpayers can’t be a qualifying child of another taxpayer, even if they aren’t claimed as dependents. But certain exceptions apply.

For example, if Bob is the qualifying child of Jane, Bob can’t claim the EIC on his return, even if Jane doesn’t claim him as a dependent on her return. But if Jane isn’t required to file a tax return and she doesn’t file, or she files only to get a full refund of all taxes she paid, Bob won’t be considered a qualifying child and he can claim the EIC on his own return.

For examples of the exceptions, see IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 3 – Rules If You Do Not Have a Qualifying Child.

Two extra rules for taxpayers with a qualifying child.

In addition to the above eight rules, taxpayers with one or more qualifying children will have a couple more rules to be eligible for the EIC.

Rule 9: Taxpayers’ children must meet four tests to be a qualifying child.

1. Relationship test.

The child must be related to the taxpayer in one of the following ways:

  • Son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, adopted child, or a descendant of any of these (a grandchild, for example).
  • Brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant of any of these (a niece or nephew, for example).

For more information on these relationships or who exactly is a foster child, see the IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 2 – Rules If You Have a Qualifying Child.

2. Age test.

The child must be:

  • Under age 19 at the end of the tax year and younger than the taxpayer (or spouse, if filing jointly),
  • Under age 24 at the end of the tax year, a student, and younger than the taxpayer (or spouse, if filing jointly), or
  • Permanently and totally disabled at any time during the tax year, regardless of age.

For more information about who is a student or who qualifies as permanently and totally disabled, check out IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 2 – Rules If You Have a Qualifying Child.

3. Residency test.

The taxpayer’s child must have lived with him or her in the United States for more than half of the tax year. If not, the taxpayer can’t claim the EIC, even if the taxpayer paid all expenses for the child.

This test is usually straightforward, but taxpayers can get confused about military personnel, birth and sudden death of a child, temporary absences, or kidnapped children.

For more information about these issues, check out IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 2 – Rules If You Have a Qualifying Child.

4. Joint return test.

The child can’t file a joint return for the year unless the child and the child’s spouse file only to claim a refund of income tax withheld or estimated tax paid.

For example, if Brian is married and files a joint return for the tax year, Brian’s mother, Jennifer, can claim him or his spouse as dependents for the EIC, only if Brian and his spouse aren’t required to file a return and don’t have a child, but file for a refund of withheld or paid estimated taxes.

Jennifer can’t claim either spouse as a dependent if the spouses claim the EIC on their joint return.

Now suppose Brian doesn’t file a joint return. Because he’s married, he can be his mother’s qualifying child only if:

  • She qualifies to claim Brian as a dependent, or
  • The reason she can’t claim him as a dependent is because she let Brian’s other parent claim him as a dependent under the special rules for divorced and separated parents, described below.

For more information on the joint return test, and other issues and examples related to it, please see the IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 2 – Rules If You Have a Qualifying Child.

Rule 10: Taxpayers’ qualifying children can’t be the qualifying children of another taxpayer.

Defining family can get complicated. A child could be a qualifying child of more than one taxpayer in a myriad of ways. Some common examples of who could claim a child include the child’s parents, grandparents, or even former spouses of a parent.

If more than one taxpayer can claim a child for the various child-related tax benefits, the taxpayers can’t split the benefits.

In other words, only one taxpayer can claim the child as a qualifying child for all the following child-related benefits:

  • Dependent exemption (before 2018 and after 2025)
  • Child tax credit (and the additional child tax credit)
  • Credit for other dependents
  • Head of household filing status
  • Child and dependent care expenses credit
  • Dependent care benefits exclusion
  • EIC

Even if a person meets all the tests to be another taxpayer’s qualifying child, that person may not be considered a qualifying child in certain circumstances.

For more information about these certain circumstances, please see the IRS Publication 596Earned Income Credit, Chapter 2 – Rules If You Have a Qualifying Child.

If the two taxpayers can’t agree on who will take the tax benefits relating to the qualifying child, and more than one person claims the same qualifying child for the EIC, the IRS will apply the tie-breaker rules.

For example, two unmarried parents, Matthew and Maureen, each file as single. They have two children, Sarah and Lauren, who are both eligible to be qualifying children of either parent. Either Matthew or Maureen (but not both) could claim both of their children for the above child-related tax benefits (assuming they are eligible).

If they tried to claim the same children, the IRS would use tie-breaker rules to determine which parent should be allowed to claim the children and accompanying tax benefits.

One way to allow both parents to remain eligible for the benefits is to have them each agree to claim a different qualifying child. In this example, Matthew could claim Sarah and Maureen could claim Lauren.

One exception: Divorced or separated parents (or parents who live apart) can agree to split certain tax benefits.

Reggie and Mandy are legally divorced with a divorce decree, and their son, Aaron, lives with Mandy. Mandy signed a release form that allows Reggie to claim Aaron as a dependent and for the child tax credit. When Mandy, the custodial parent, signed this release form, she still keeps the rest of the child tax benefits, including the EIC. Mandy files as head of household and claims the EIC. Reggie can’t claim the EIC with Aaron as a qualifying child.

For more information about Form 8332Release/Revocation of Release of Claim to Exemption for Child by the Custodial Parent, see IRS Publication 504Divorced or Separated Individuals.

Three extra rules for taxpayers who don’t have a qualifying child.

In addition to the eight rules for everyone, taxpayers who don’t have a qualifying child for the EIC must meet additional requirements outlined in the three rules below.

Rule 11: Taxpayers must be at least 25 and under 65 by the end of the tax year.

If taxpayers file jointly with a spouse, only one of the spouses must qualify for this age rule.

For 2021, there are several exceptions to this rule. For 2021, the minimum age is generally 19 and the maximum age 65 is eliminated.

Rule 12: Taxpayers can’t be another taxpayer’s dependent.

For example, if Susan qualifies as Robert’s dependent, Susan can’t claim the EIC on her return – even if Robert doesn’t claim Susan as a dependent.

For more information and excellent examples on whether a person qualifies as a dependent, check out IRS Publication 501Dependents, Standard Deduction, and Filing Information.

Rule 13: Taxpayers must have lived in the United States for more than half the year.

The taxpayer (and spouse, if married filing jointly) must live in the 50 states or the District of Columbia for 183 days or more during the year. This doesn’t include Puerto Rico or U.S. possessions, such as Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, etc.

Don’t forget: paid tax preparer due diligence requirements

A paid tax preparer has an additional duty when it comes to the EIC. There are four due diligence requirements that a paid tax preparer must fulfill when preparing a return with the EIC.

One of the requirements is to complete Form 8867, Paid Preparer’s Earned Income Credit Checklist. Form 8867 will ask the preparer to confirm that he or she met all due diligence requirements when determining whether a taxpayer was eligible for the EIC.

For details on the paid preparer due diligence requirements, please see IRS.gov, Refundable Credit Due Diligence Law and Due Diligence FAQs.

These rules can be tricky at first glance

It’s important for taxpayers and tax professionals to go through the rules carefully to understand EIC requirements. It’s worth the time and effort. Remember, taxpayers who are eligible for the credit but don’t claim it could be missing out on an average of $2,461. Credits are meant to be claimed, and this one can make a big difference.

This article was originally published on Nov. 14, 2017 and has been updated for year-over-year changes and legislative developments, including the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021

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Author Name

Catherine Martin

Catherine Martin, JD, is a senior tax research analyst at The Tax Institute. Catherine works with a team of tax attorneys and CPAs who review and analyze legislation and the impact of tax laws on taxpayers.

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