Attention Parents! New Child Tax Credit Features

The American Rescue Plan Act, a huge federal COVID recovery bill passed in March, did more than provide for $1400 stimulus payments. One of its provisions will soon begin impacting millions of American families with children: advance payment of the expanded child tax credit. Those affected should:

  • Plan now for best use of extra funds.
  • Make a point to pay attention to IRS updates on this topic over the next several weeks.
  • Watch their mail – the IRS has begun this week to mail a general information letter to all families it believes to be eligible. In July, they will mail individualized letters specific to each household, telling what to expect.

Expanded Credit. The Child Tax Credit was formerly $2,000 per child; it was unavailable to families with no income, and the amount was limited for families with very low income. For 2021 only:

  • Families with children who will still be under age 18 at the end of the year (born after December 31 2003) are eligible for the full amount of the credit, even if they had no or low income.
  • The amount of the annual credit is increased to $3,000 for most children, and to $3,600 for children under 6 (born after Dec 31 2015).

NOTE: the expanded credit is available to families with incomes below $75,000 (single); $112,500 (head of household); or $150,000 (married-joint). Families with higher incomes will still receive the $2,000 child tax credit under the previously-existing rules.

Advance Payment. Instead of waiting until tax time next February, eligible families will begin receiving monthly advance payments for part of the Child Tax Credit. This means that beginning about July 15 through December, families will receive monthly payments from the IRS equal to $250 per child. The amount will be $300 for younger children eligible for the $3,600 credit. These advance payments will equate to half of the total tax credit; the remainder will be paid as part of the household’s tax refund next spring.

Consider focusing on family stability. Before making special purchases, families may wish to use the funds to get current and/or stay current on all household expenses (rent, utilities, child care, etc). Building a savings cushion also promotes stability: 1) providing funds in case of unexpected expenses such as car repair or appliance replacement; AND/OR 2) covering upcoming expected costs such as back-to-school, holidays, or property taxes. A savings cushion to cover extra expenses can prevent financial setbacks, promote family stability, and reduce financial stress.

Paying off debt is also a good use of extra funds, especially debts with high interest rates. HOWEVER, it is often wise to build a savings cushion even before all debt is paid off. Without that savings, every unexpected expense simply creates more debt and more stress.

Watch for Updates! The IRS will base payments on information from 2020 tax returns. If your situation changes, you will be able to let them know of changes through one or more on-line portals they will create in the near future (similar to the “Check Your Refund” portal, or the “Get My Payment” portal used for stimulus payments). The portal(s) will allow families to enter information such as: bank information for direct deposit; a new child in your household; updated mailing address. The portal will also allow you to decline the advance payments and choose to receive the entire amount with your tax refund after the year is over.

The IRS reference page for the advance child tax credit is here.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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More: Assistance for Internet and Technology

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Emergency Broadband Benefit launched on May 12th. This benefit provides a discount of $50 per month for eligible low-income households or $75 per month for households on Tribal lands to cover internet bills, as well as discounts on some devices. This program can also be combined with Lifeline benefits.

Reliable home internet and technology provide older adults with more options to access important services and supports, including legal assistance, telehealth services, and portals for economic impact payment eligibility and benefits programs. The FCC has announced that eligible households can apply for the program in three ways: 
– Contact participating broadband providers directly to learn about their application process.  
– Visit GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and to find participating providers.
– Call (833) 511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with proof of eligibility to: Emergency Broadband Support Center, P.O. Box 7081, London, KY 40742. 

Individuals who use videophones and are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) may call the FCC’s ASL Consumer Support Line at (844) 432-2275 (videophone).   There are resources available to help advocates advertise the program to their clients and community, and it is especially important to share this information with populations who face the greatest barriers to connectivity, including older adults of color, those living in rural areas, and other marginalized groups. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Emergency Broadband Benefit launched on May 12th. This benefit provides a discount of $50 per month for eligible low-income households or $75 per month for households on Tribal lands to cover internet bills, as well as discounts on some devices. This program can also be combined with Lifeline benefits.

Reliable home internet and technology provide older adults with more options to access important services and supports, including legal assistance, telehealth services, and portals for economic impact payment eligibility and benefits programs. The FCC has announced that eligible households can apply for the program in three ways: 
– Contact participating broadband providers directly to learn about their application process.  
– Visit GetEmergencyBroadband.org to apply online and to find participating providers.
– Call (833) 511-0311 for a mail-in application, and return it along with proof of eligibility to: Emergency Broadband Support Center, P.O. Box 7081, London, KY 40742. 

Individuals who use videophones and are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) may call the FCC’s ASL Consumer Support Line at (844) 432-2275 (videophone).  

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Get Help Paying the Internet Bill

In a new program from the Federal Communications Commission, qualifying households are eligible for a temporary monthly discount on their broadband internet service; in most cases, the discount is $50/month. The income guidelines are low, so only a fraction of Americans will qualify, but if someone you know is eligible, that $50/month could make a huge difference to their family.

You may qualify if any one of the following applies to you:

  • People with incomes below 135% of the poverty level. That’s about $17,000/year for a single person, or $35,000/year for a family of four.
  • You are eligible for Food Assistance, Medicaid, Free or Reduced School Lunch, or Lifeline benefits.
  • You participate in certain tribal programs, including BIA General Assistance, Tribal Head Start, Tribal TANF, or emergency food distribution.
  • You are a student receiving a Pell Grant.
  • Your household has lost significant amount of income due to pandemic-related job loss. NOTE: this qualification includes people with incomes well above the 135% poverty threshold.

The funding is temporary, and will end when the program runs out of money OR six months after the US Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID public health emergency. Apply now in order to take advantage of this opportunity.

To Apply: Go to https://getemergencybroadband.org/ where you will find all the details and the on-line application form.

Source: Consumer Action, which offers this information in Spanish.
The Federal Communications Commission offers pdf fact sheets in Arabic, Amharic, Burmese, Chinese-Traditional, Chinese-Simplified, French, Haitian Creole, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Somali, Tagalog, and Vietnamese as part of their outreach toolkit.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Garden Season: Invest wisely

I had a garden last year like I have most of the past 20-plus years. I’ve never been a GREAT gardener, but I’ve enjoyed having some fresh produce that I grew myself. Last year was extremely disappointing, however — very little to harvest. Somewhere along the line I realized that I had skipped the step of adding fertilizer to the soil. I knew better too – I had learned that lesson early on.

I was disappointed to have so little produce, of course, but mostly I was disgusted with myself for investing the time, energy and money (for plants/seeds and for watering) without taking the simple extra step that would have made my efforts pay off. One careless oversight made most of my investment go to waste.

You can bet I’m going to be smarter this year. I will make sure to fertilize as recommended. For those of us who are not already gardening experts, good information is the key to having our investments pay off. There are many sources of information – some provide trustworthy information while others are just passing on rumors or trying to sell a product. Evaluate the source of any information you use as you plan, plant, and tend your garden this summer. One source of information you know you can trust is Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Check out our Horticulture and Home Pest News site for a wealth of information to meet your needs. It includes an encyclopedia, with topics alphabetically, along with a “browse by topic” section, a search function and more.

Happy gardening!

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Where’s My Refund? Where’s my EIP?

I am one of several Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Field Specialists that assist families with tax preparation and e-filing. This past week, I have been receiving at least one phone call a day from individuals wanting to know where their refund is. Many tell me they have already been to the website to check their status. The only place individuals should be checking their refund status is at the IRS.gov web site. Likewise, if you are wondering about the status of your Third Economic Impact Payment (generally $1400/person), the IRS web site is your source.

IRS.gov is the only safe place to check your refund or your stimulus payment

Refund Status. There are ONLY THREE QUESTIONS that need to be answered when using the Get Your Refund Status link on the IRS.gov website: 1) The Social Security number of the person listed on the return as the FIRST NAME on the return (not the spouse); 2) Your FILING STATUS (single, married filing jointly, head of household, married filing separately, or qualifying widow(er)); and 3) the amount of your refund, which is found on line 35A of page 2 of your federal tax return.

Stimulus Payment Status. Here again, the IRS has THREE QUESTIONS, although they are different. The needed information is: 1) Your Social Security number; 2) Your date of birth; and 3) Your mailing address. The mailing address can be tricky if you have moved recently. Generally, you should enter the mailing address on the most recent tax return the IRS has processed from you. However, if you have not filed a tax return in recent years, use the mailing address on file at Social Security or the Veterans Administration. Note: The tool to check your stimulus payment only relates to the third economic impact payment, authorized in the American Rescue Plan signed in mid-March. If you have not received either of the first two payments, your only option is to file a 2020 tax return, even if you have no income to report. The tax return allows you to claim the first two stimulus payments, and also sets the wheels in motion to process your third payment.

If you “google” where’s my refund and are taken to a website that asks for additional information, such as your salary, mother’s maiden name, or any other personal information, you are in the wrong place; you may be giving your personal information to someone who is stealing your identity.

~ Brenda Schmitt

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Funeral Assistance in COVID Deaths: Avoid Scams

If you lost a loved one to COVID-19, you may be eligible for a government program that pays for funeral expenses. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will pay up to $9,000 for funeral expenses for loved ones who died of COVID-19. Survivors can apply for benefits by contacting FEMA, toll-free, at 844-684-6333. To find out if you qualify, read FEMA’s Funeral Assistance FAQs.

Unfortunately, FEMA reports that scammers are contacting people and pretending to offer to register them for assistance. To avoid those scams, here are some tips:

  • FEMA will not contact you until you call or apply for assistance.
  • The government won’t ask you to pay anything to get this benefit. 
  • Don’t give your own or your deceased loved one’s personal or financial information to anyone who contacts you out of the blue.

If you think you got a scam call, hang up and report it to the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-3362 or the Federal Trade Commission at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.

Source: Reprinted from CFPB news. They also provide information about other scams, including general scams as well as other COVID-related scams.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Remote Work

Over the past year, many Iowans have experienced working remotely. Their experiences have convinced them – and their employers – that remote work can continue to be a viable option, with or without a pandemic. Over the past year, many Iowans have experienced working remotely. Their experiences have convinced them – and their employers – that remote work can continue to be a viable option, with or without a pandemic.

Remote work is likely here to stay. Having the skills to be successful in remote work can open employment possibilities for Iowans no matter where they live. Iowans can gain these skills through the Remote Work Certificate. ISU Extension and Outreach offers the virtual course in partnership with Utah State University Extension. The four-week course is open to adult learners and requires approximately 30 hours to complete. Participants work at their own pace but must participate in four weekly virtual workshops and submit weekly assignments. The course simulates remote work. Participants work independently on the assignments and meet as a group each week for one-hour via Zoom to practice technology, etiquette and virtual small-group work. Participants are divided into work groups made up of individuals across the U.S. to complete a project.

Participants must have broadband internet access, a Web camera and microphone, and basic computer proficiency. The course registration fee is $249 and upon completion participants receive a Remote Work Certificate. A new session begins each month, except in July and December. Upcoming sessions are listed and registration information is available on the Human Sciences Extension and Outreach website at https://www.extension.iastate.edu/humansciences/remote-work.

Five human sciences specialists coordinate the course and provide support for participants. At the end of the four-week course, participants who would like one-on-one assistance in setting career goals, identifying gaps in skills and finding opportunities for remote work can schedule time with a specialist. Participants take the course for many reasons. Some are preparing for remote employment. Some are transitioning from an on-site job to remote work. Others are looking for professional development and are investing in themselves. Remote work can provide self-employed entrepreneurs with flexibility and access to a larger pool of contract work to select from as they build their business.

The course also is appropriate for high school seniors who want to enter the workforce upon graduation. Many already possess the necessary technology skills, and the course can add the experience of remote work that may appeal to potential employers. Other students will find remote work valuable as they pay their way through college. By working remotely, they won’t have to find a different job when they return home during semester breaks. ~Brenda Schmitt

Photo credit: insta_photos/stock.adobe.com

Brenda Schmitt

A Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Family Finance Field Specialist helping North Central Iowans make the most of their money.

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Affordable Health Insurance: ARPA Expansions

The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA) has put into place several temporary expansions to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) provisions that can help Americans access health coverage at affordable prices. In general, these benefits apply to people who purchase health insurance in the Marketplace (created by the ACA) because they do not have an affordable option available through employment. The expansion has two dimensions: 1) more people are eligible for help paying the health insurance premiums for plans purchased in the Marketplace, AND 2) those who are eligible for help are now eligible for MORE help, so that their share of the monthly premium can be reduced.  People who are unemployed will especially benefit.

The Health Insurance Marketplace is now open for enrollment through August 15, so if this information makes you want to enroll in a plan OR change the plan you chose, you should be able to do so in the next few weeks. NOTE: The law took effect March 11. The agency in charge of the Health Insurance Marketplace expects to be ready to implement many of the changes on April 1. Suggestion: if you call or log in to the Marketplace in early April, ASK if the new rules are yet in place. It might be worth waiting a week or two in order to be sure the changes have been built into the system.

More Help. The ACA created a maximum cost people would have to pay for health insurance premiums, stated as a % of your income. The ARPA dramatically reduced that percentage of income for 2021 and 2022.  For example, suppose you are a 2-person household with income of $43,000/year (which is just under 250% of the poverty level); under the ACA your share of the premium for a benchmark silver plan would have been 8% of your income; under the new ARPA guidelines, your share of the premium cost for that same silver plan is just 4% of your income. Implications:

  • Some people who previously decided health insurance was too expensive will NOW decide it is affordable under the new rules.
  • People who chose a less-expensive bronze plan despite its higher deductible and copays may NOW decide a silver plan is worthwhile.
    This is of special value to those who are at or below 250% of the federal poverty mark, because these folks are eligible for plans that sell for a “silver” price but have smaller deductibles and copays so that they are more like a gold or platinum plan. In other words, folks under the 250% level can get a premiere plan for a budget price.
    It’s sort of like getting a brand-new luxury SUV for the price of a 2014 compact sedan!
  • If you are already enrolled in a Marketplace plan, there is a good chance that your share of the monthly premium is reduced under the new rules. Consider contacting the Marketplace (800-318-2596) sometime later in April.

More People Eligible.  Under the original ACA rules, if your income was over 4 times the poverty level, you were not eligible for help paying for health insurance. Under the ARPA expansion, people of any income level are eligible if the cost of the Marketplace plan would exceed 8.5% of their income. This will be especially valuable for those in their 50’s and 60’s, since health insurance premiums rise with age. This provision is also in effect for 2021 and 2022. 
Implication: some people with incomes above the 400% threshold may have compromised to save money by purchasing health coverage that was poorer quality (that is, it does not meet the ACA standards related to broad coverage and value). With the new cap of 8.5% of income regardless of income level, these folks might now be able to purchase a high-quality plan for an affordable price.

Huge Benefit for Those Unemployed at ANY time during 2021.  Note: this benefit is ONLY in effect in 2021.  If you receive(d) Unemployment Income at ANY time during the 2021 calendar year, special rules apply for your eligibility. With regard to eligibility for help paying for health insurance in the Marketplace, any income above 133% of the poverty level will be disregarded. That means these households will be eligible for the “platinum-like” silver plans for FREE – the premiums will be entirely covered by the subsidy.  Note: all other qualifications must also be met. For example, if you have workplace coverage available that is considered affordable, then you will not be eligible for the free silver plan.  However, if you are unemployed now, take advantage of the free silver plan. If you get a new job in a couple months that provides insurance, you can then drop the silver plan.
For those whose incomes are below 100-133% of poverty, they will be eligible for Medicaid coverage (also free), even in states where Medicaid was not expanded.

COBRA Subsidy. For people who lost health coverage due to being laid off or having their work hours reduced, the government will cover the cost of their COBRA premiums for up to six months, from April 1 – September 30, 2021. Check with your employer about how this might help you. Even if you lost your job months ago and did not sign up for COBRA at that time, you should now be able to sign up for COBRA.
Note: if you are in this group, you might also benefit from Marketplace insurance or Medicaid, so be sure to evaluate all your options.

Primary Source: Kaiser Health News Details for the % of income (paragraph 3) from Kitces.com
For more information see: https://www.healthcare.gov/more-savings/

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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$1400 Stimulus: The Same, Yet Different

People are excited about the extra $1400 stimulus payments that are coming. Last Saturday, just ONE day after the bill was signed, I heard by the grapevine that some folks already received their payment! More received it this past week, and more will be receiving it in the next several weeks. Even though Americans knew this was coming, and even though it is the third in a series of payments promoting economic recovery from the impact of the pandemic, it does involve some differences worth noting.

  • All dependents qualify. Under the earlier stimulus payments, households received extra payment only for dependents who were eligible for the Child Tax Credit (i.e. under age 17). However, the new round of payments will include dependents who are older children, parents or others. Caveat: it may not be safe to assume that this includes dependents who are not relatives or other atypical dependents – we will need to watch how the law is applied.
    This is the BIGGEST change, and will affect MANY families!
  • The payments are protected from being held back to pay federal debts, such as back student loans, back taxes or back child support. However, as of now, these funds are not protected against private debt collectors after they arrive in your bank account; they could be seized (garnished) for repayment of credit card debt or other private debt.
  • The payments are available to people below certain income limits, just as before, but this time the phaseout is steeper. The phaseouts are as follows: Single Filers and Married Filing Separate phase out from $75,000 – $80,000; Head of Household phases out from $112,500 – $120,000; Married Filing Joint, from $150,000 – $160,000.
  • The steep phaseout means that for some households, the difference in income from one year to the next may be important. The income guidelines may be applied to your income for either of two or three tax years, and if you meet the rule for any of the years, then you will be eligible. For starters, they will check your most recently-filed return, which may be either 2019 or 2020. If you were below the threshold for 2019 but above it for 2020, it may be worthwhile to delay filing your 2020 return until you receive your payment. If your 2020 income is within the limits, then your 2020 return will be used, as long as it is filled within 90 days of the tax-filing deadline of May 17, 2020. And if you didn’t qualify based on 2020, you can still receive the payment as part of your 2021 tax return.
    One key implication: if your income in a normal year would put you above the limits, but you had lower income in 2020, then get your 2020 tax return filed before that deadline of 90 days after May 17!
  • If the payment is made based on your 2019 or 2020 income, and then your 2021 income proves to be above the limit, you will not need to pay anything back.

Source: Kitces.com

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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Unemployment Compensation Exclusion – Stay tuned!

When the American Rescue Plan was passed recently, consumers paid most attention to the $1400 stimulus checks (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming post), but there’s another feature that has gotten less attention. If you received unemployment compensation in 2020, it’s good news for you!

The first $10,200 of unemployment income you received in 2020 will now be excluded from your taxable income. This exclusion applies in 2020 only. Exception: you are not eligible for the exclusion if you are a high-income household (over $150,000). In states that follow most provisions of federal tax law, including Iowa, the exclusion also applies to state income tax.

This Unemployment Compensation Exclusion will make a big difference on tax returns for people who qualify, reducing tax bills (and/or increasing refunds) by $1,000 or more for some households. Note: the amount depends on how much unemployment compensation you received and on your total taxable income.

The software we use at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) sites was updated very quickly; the update was in place by Friday March 19, only a week after the law was signed. I’m sure the same is true for most other tax software packages.

Some of you may be wondering: what if I filed my tax return earlier in the season??

Do not fear – you are also eligible for the exclusion. However, we do not yet know how that is going to be handled; we need to wait for word from the IRS. For now, the IRS says: “WAIT – don’t take any action until we’ve announced how you should handle it.” The worst-case scenario is simply that you would need to file an amended tax return.  However, some of us are hoping that the IRS and their computers will be able to simply pull out those tax returns, recalculate them, and issue the additional refunds. If that would happen, taxpayers would see two results: 1) an additional refund (check or direct deposit); and 2) a letter explaining the adjustment. Don’t be surprised if the refund arrives before the letter. The same issue arises for state tax returns, and the possibilities are basically the same as well: they may be able to recalculate and issue additional refunds with no action from you, OR you may have to file an amended return. Reminder: for now, the IRS does NOT want anyone to file amended returns for this purpose.

If you are eligible for the Unemployment Compensation Exclusion but filed your taxes before it was enacted, you will need to stay tuned for more information and you may need patience. As always, never ignore a letter from the IRS, and pay attention to your bank statements.

Barb Wollan

Barb Wollan's goal as a Family Finance program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is to help people use their money according to THEIR priorities. She provides information and tools, and then encourages folks to focus on what they control: their own decisions about what to do with the money they have.

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