Coronavirus and Your Money

IRS Is Sending More Unemployment Tax Refund Checks This Summer

Uncle Sam has already sent tax refunds to millions of Americans who are eligible for the $10,200 unemployment compensation tax exemption. More payments are coming.

If you received unemployment benefits last year and filed your 2020 tax return relatively early, you may find a check in your mailbox soon (or a deposit in your bank account). The IRS started issuing automatic tax refunds in May to Americans who filed their 2020 return and reported unemployment compensation before tax law changes were made by the American Rescue Plan. The tax agency has already sent nearly 9 million refunds, but additional tax refund checks will be sent through the summer.

The American Rescue Plan Act, which was enacted in March, exempts up to $10,200 of unemployment benefits received in 2020 ($20,400 for married couples filing jointly) from federal income tax for households reporting an adjusted gross income (AGI) less than $150,000 on their 2020 tax return. If you received more than $10,200 in unemployment compensation last year, any amount over $10,200 is still taxable.

The IRS has identified over 10 million people who filed their tax returns before the plan became law and is reviewing those returns to determine the correct amount of tax on their unemployment compensation. For those affected, this could result in a refund, a reduced tax bill, or no change at all. (You can use the IRS's Interactive Tax Assistant tool to see if payments you received for being unemployed are taxable.)

The IRS is recalculating impacted tax returns in two phases. It started with tax returns from single taxpayers who had relatively simple returns, such as those filed by people who didn't claim children as dependents or any refundable tax credits. However, the tax agency has now shifted to phase two, which includes joint returns filed by married couples who are eligible for an exemption up to $20,400 and others with more complex returns.

Remember, though, that the tax exemption only applies to unemployment benefits received in 2020. So, if you receive unemployment compensation in 2021 or beyond, expect to pay federal tax on the amount you get.

Refunds for Unemployment Compensation

If you're entitled to a refund, the IRS will directly deposit it into your bank account if you provided the necessary bank account information on your 2020 tax return. If valid bank account information is not available, the IRS will mail a paper check to your address of record. (If your account is no longer valid or is closed, the bank will return your refund to the IRS and a check will be mailed to the address the tax agency has on file for you.) The IRS says it will continue to send refunds until all identified tax returns have been reviewed and adjusted.

The IRS will send you a notice explaining any corrections. Expect the notice within 30 days of when the correction is made. Keep any notices you receive for your records, and make sure you review your return after receiving an IRS notice.

The refunds are also subject to normal offset rules. So, the amount you get could be reduced (potentially to zero) if you owe federal tax, state income tax, state unemployment compensation debt, child support, spousal support, or certain federal non-tax debt (i.e., student loans). The IRS will send a separate notice to you if your refund is offset to pay any unpaid debts.

Should I File an Amended Return?

Although the IRS says there's no need to file an amended return, some early filers may still need to, especially if their recalculated AGI makes them eligible for additional federal credits and deductions not already included on their original tax return.

The IRS, for example, can adjust returns for those taxpayers who claimed the earned income tax credit and, because the exemption changed their income level, may now be eligible for an increase in the tax credit amount which may result in a larger refund. That said, taxpayers will need to file an amended return if they didn't originally claim the tax credit, or other credits like the additional child tax credit, but now are eligible because the exclusion changed their income, according to the IRS. These taxpayers may want to review their state tax returns as well.

E-Filing Your 2021 Tax Return

Next year, when you try to e-file your 2021 tax return, you will have to sign and validate your electronic return by entering your prior-year AGI or your prior-year Self-Select PIN. If you use your AGI, make sure to use the AGI as originally reported on Line 11 of your 2020 Form 1040 or 1040-SR. Don't use the corrected AGI if the IRS adjusts your 2020 return to account for the unemployment exclusion.

Withholding from Unemployment Compensation

Again, the $10,200 exemption only applies to unemployment compensation received in 2020. So, to avoid a big tax bill when you file your 2021 return next year, consider having taxes withheld from any unemployment payments you receive this year.

Contact your state unemployment office to have federal income taxes withheld from your unemployment benefits. You may be able to use Form W-4V to voluntarily have federal income taxes withheld from your payments. However, check with your state to see if it has its own form. If so, use the state form instead.

Victims of Unemployment Fraud

Whenever the government starts sending checks, criminals will try to get their hands on some of that money. That's certainly the case with the unemployment compensation tax refunds. The good news is that you won't be punished if a crook uses your name and personal information to steal a tax refund from Uncle Sam.

So, for example, if you received an incorrect Form 1099-G for unemployment benefits that you didn't receive, the IRS won't adjust your tax return to add the unemployment compensation to your taxable income. You should still report the fraud to the state workforce agency that issued the incorrect form, though.

What About State Taxes?

Just because the federal government is waiving taxes on the first $10,200 of your 2020 unemployment benefits, that doesn't mean your state will too. To see if your state has adopted the federal exemption for 2020 state tax returns, see Taxes on Unemployment Benefits: A State-by-State Guide.

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