Here come the child tax credit payments: What you need to know

The first advance payments under the temporarily expanded child tax credit (CTC) will begin to arrive for nearly 39 million households in mid-July 2021 — unless, that is, they opt out. Most eligible families won’t need to do anything to receive the payments, but you need to understand the implications and why advance payments might not make sense for your household even if you qualify for them.


Understanding the CTC, then and now


The CTC was established in 1997. Unlike a deduction, which reduces taxable income, a credit reduces the amount of taxes you owe on a dollar-for-dollar basis. While some credits are limited by the amount of your tax liability, others, like the CTC, are refundable, which means that even taxpayers with no federal tax liability can benefit. Historically, the CTC has been only partially refundable in that the refundable amount was limited to $1,400.


The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) significantly expands the credit, albeit only for 2021. Specifically, the ARPA boosts the CTC from $2,000 to $3,000 per child ages six through 17, with credits of $3,600 for each child under age six. Plus, the CTC is now fully refundable. It also affords taxpayers the opportunity to take advantage of half of the benefit in 2021, rather than waiting until tax time in 2022.


Note, however, that there are limits to eligibility. The $2,000 credit is subject to a phaseout when income exceeds $400,000 for joint filers and $200,000 for other filers, and this continues under the ARPA — for the first $2,000. A separate phaseout applies for the increased amount: $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for heads of household and $150,000 for joint filers.


Receiving advance payments


The ARPA directed the U.S. Treasury Department to begin making monthly payments of half of the credit in July 2021, with the remaining half to be claimed in 2022 on 2021 tax returns. For example, a household that’s eligible for a $3,600 CTC will receive $1,800 ($300 in six monthly payments) in 2021 and would claim the balance of $1,800 on the 2021 return. The payments will be made on the 15th of each month through December 2021, except for August, when they’ll be paid on August 13.


To qualify for advance payments, you (and your spouse,