Three rounds of stimulus payments have been issued since the start of the pandemic to help Americans get through this financial crisis. In total, an eligible individual could have potentially received $3,200—more if they have children or dependents. The trouble is that millions of Americans have not received the full stimulus payments due to them. And getting answers about why and where a stimulus payment is can be downright impossible.
The answer to most stimulus check challenges can be answered with a 2020 income tax filing. But even that is confusing, given that many Americans who are not traditionally required to file and being told that they need to file this year. This can include people who are receiving federal benefits through Social Security and the VA, as well as people who don’t earn enough income to be required to file.
For all those wondering how this is supposed to work and what you need to do to get your money, Debt.com has put together this guide. We talked to two tax experts to get all the information you need to finally get any missing stimulus payments you’re owed. Here’s what you need to know…
Why is filing a tax return this year important for people—even those that don’t traditionally file because they have low income or receive federal benefits?
“Filing a 2020 tax return is critical for people who may not legally be required to file,” explains Clare Herceg, founder of Let’s Get Set. “First, it is the only way to get stimulus check money they are owed from the first and second checks. These funds are issued to them through the Recovery Rebate Credit as part of their tax refund. Filing a return is also the best way to make sure you are in the system to get your third check – the $1400 one.”
Herceg’s company is an MIT-founded fintech startup that specializes in advising families that make less than $40,000 annually on unclaimed tax credits. That means helping families file their taxes to claim stimulus is right up her alley.
And, as she explains, filing is not just crucial for stimulus. There are other credits that people need can claim to increase the size of their refund:
“Many people don’t realize that they actually are leaving money on the table via unclaimed tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit. We estimate that parents miss out on $12B each year via those credits.”
Why is the 2020 return especially important for people who didn’t file a 2019 return?
For the third round of stimulus issued under the American Rescue Plan Act, the federal government is using people’s 2019 or 2020 tax returns to determine who is eligible to receive a payment.
“The IRS is using people’s 2019 and 2020 tax returns to send them stimulus checks, and if you have not submitted a 2019 return, you should submit a 2020 return to get on the agency’s radar,” says Kari Brummond, a tax preparer at TaxDebtHelp.com. “The exception is Social Security recipients—if you receive Social Security, you don’t have to file because the IRS sends payments to those people automatically, whether they file tax returns or not.”
For everyone else, filing a tax return is critical. It’s the only way the IRS will know that you are eligible to receive a payment.
How does filing taxes work when you have no income?
“Even if you have no income, you can file a tax return,” Brummond advises. “Basically, you’re going to fill out the tax return as usual, but you’re going to put zeros in all the income section.”
She warns that while filing a tax return with no income entered will qualify someone to get their stimulus payments, they may not qualify for other tax credits. There are exceptions though.
“Most tax credits require you to have earned income. However, the child tax credit is a notable exception. In the past, you needed at least $2500 in earned income to qualify for this credit, but recently passed legislation eliminated that requirement and increased the value of the credit to $3000 per child over five and $3600 for children ages five and below,” she explains. “If you have minor dependents to claim on your tax return, you should definitely file regardless of whether or not you have any income. This can be really valuable.
“To give you an example, if you are a single parent with two kids and no income, you could potentially get three $1400 stimulus payments plus two child tax credits, putting $10,200 in your pocket.”
And keep in mind that this example does not include money that you may be owed from the first or second stimulus. With the Recovery Rebate Credit, you could potentially receive even more crucial funds that can help you get through this financial crisis.
If you earned even a little income, you’re eligible for even more credits…
“If you have even a little income, you start to become eligible for other credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC),” Brummond continues.
Herceg agrees that the EITC offers big benefits for low-income filers, “The EITC kicks in with any amount of earned income and phases in, levels off, and phases out as your income increases.”
She also encourages people to take advantage of free tax filing software, which is available at no charge to any individual that makes less than $72,000 annually. “They can use free tax preparation via partners like GetYourRefund and software via MyFreeTaxes, and it’s the only way they can get their first and second stimulus checks (via the Recovery Rebate Credit).”
Why is filing a 2020 tax return important even if you filed in 2019?
“There’s a special rule this year called “the Lookback Provision” that allows people who made more in 2019 than in 2020 to use their 2019 income to claim higher credits (namely the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit),” Clare Herceg explains. “This can be a difference of thousands of dollars for families!”
In other words, if you lost income due to the pandemic, then you may be entitled to more money now.
More Stimulus Tax Filing Questions Answered
What is the Recovery Rebate Credit?
The Recovery Rebate Credit is a new tax credit on 2020 tax returns. It’s specifically designed to allow people who did not receive their full first or second stimulus payment to get the money they are owed.
If you did not receive a first or second stimulus payment, or you did not receive the payments for your dependents, then the Recovery Rebate Credit is where you claim any funds you are owed. Claiming this credit will mean you receive a bigger tax refund in an amount equal to what you are owed from last year’s stimulus.
Do Social Security and VA benefits recipients need to file taxes this year?
This depends on a person’s situation. Social Security or VA benefits recipients do not need to file an income tax return to receive their third payment. The third stimulus payment will be issued the same way that the individual receives their benefits. The IRS began distributing payments to people who receive Social Security and SSI benefits on April 7 and those who receive VA benefits on April 14.
However, if a recipient is owed money from the first or second round of stimulus issued last year, then they may need to file to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit. In addition, if someone who receives benefits has children or other dependents, then they may need to file to claim those payments.
Will the third stimulus payment be included with my tax refund?
No. Although your 2020 tax return shows that you are eligible to receive a payment, the payment itself will arrive separately from your refund. It will arrive via the same method that your refund arrives. So, if you get your refund via direct deposit, your stimulus will arrive the same way. If you get your refund by mail, then the IRS will send you a debit card with your stimulus money separate from your tax refund for the year.
It’s important to note that any stimulus owed on the first and second round will be included in your refund since it’s get paid via a tax credit.
If I received an EIP card last year, will the third payment be added to that card?
No. The IRS will not load the third stimulus payment onto an existing EIP card. You will receive a new card for the third payment.
Don’t wait to get the stimulus money that you are owed!
Both of our experts agree that the best way to ensure you get any stimulus money that you are owed is to file your taxes by the May 17 deadline.
“I would encourage people to file before the deadline because that is the only way we know of so far to ensure they get those first two economic impact payments,” Herceg affirms.
Kari Brummond agrees, although she thinks the IRS may offer other paths for people to get unclaimed stimulus payments, but it’s best not to wait.
“Once tax season passes, the IRS will likely set up a website where nonfilers and others who haven’t received stimulus payments can go to claim their payments,” she says. “The agency may even set up an option where you can claim unpaid stimulus payments on your 2021 tax return. However, this is just speculation based on how the agency handled the last two rounds of stimulus payments. Right now, the best way to ensure you get a payment is to file your 2020 return by the May 17th deadline.”
About Clare Herceg:
Clare Herceg is the Founder of Let’s Get Set, an MIT-founded startup that helps families making <$40k use tax credits to start saving. Their mobile-based tools and resources are built for new parents who make less than $40k and help guide them through navigating tax credits for the first time.
About Kari Brummond:
Kari Brummond is a tax preparer for TaxDebtHelp.com, a financial writer, a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and a proud Mom!