2021 Tax Returns: What's New on the 1040 Form This Year
If you're a last-minute filer, familiarize yourself with potential changes for your 2021 tax return before tackling your 1040.
Time is running out if you haven't already filed your 2021 federal tax return. For most people, the tax return filing deadline is April 18 this year (residents of Maine and Massachusetts get one extra day). So, for all you tax procrastinators out there, it's time to get moving. One of the first things you should do is collect and organize your tax records. If you're going to file your own 1040, you should also check out tax software options. If you need more time to file your return, request a tax filing extension (although you'll still have to pay any tax you expect to owe). And, no matter when you fill out your 2021 tax return, you first want to familiarize yourself with the tax law changes that may impact it.
Many (but not all) of the new items on the 2021 1040 form come from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was enacted last March. This Covid-relief bill made changes to the child tax credit, child and dependent care credit, earned income tax credit, and more. Other changes stem from the expiration of earlier Covid-related provisions that expired at the end of 2020. There are a few modifications to some of the main 1040 schedules, too. And, of course, there are the normal inflation-based adjustments that occur every year.
There are many reasons why you should know and understanding these changes up front. First and foremost, it very well may result in a larger tax refund or a smaller tax bill. You're also likely to get through your return faster if you're already aware of any new twists and turns. If someone else prepares your 1040, it will be easier to catch any errors when you review the return. But since "Tax Day" is right around the corner, you don't have much time left to get up-to-speed on what's new and changed for your 2021 tax return. So take a look at our list below and study up now so you know what to look for before tackling your 1040.
"Tax Day" is the day that federal personal income tax returns are due. It was delayed the past two years because of COVID-19. In 2020, Tax Day was pushed back to July 15, and last year it was moved to May 17. This year, however, the tax return filing deadline is moved back to its normal spot on the calendar…well, sort of.
Federal income tax returns are normally due on April 15. But this year most 2021 tax returns aren't due until April 18. That's because of a holiday in the District of Columbia. If you live in Maine or Massachusetts, your federal return isn't due until April 19, thanks to a local holiday in those states. Victims of certain recent natural disaster can wait even longer to file their return.
For more information, see Tax Day 2022: When's the Last Day to File Taxes?
Form 1040 and Main Schedules
There are some subtle, but important, changes to the 1040 form itself for 2021 tax returns. Generally, they're needed to account for changes to the tax laws that are discussed below. For instance, the line on page 1 of the 1040 used for reporting the $300 deduction for charitable cash contributions was moved down on the form so that the deduction no longer impacts your federal adjusted gross income (AGI). This is important because your federal AGI is used to calculate several other tax breaks and obligations. It's also used by many states as the starting point for determining your state income tax liability.
Lines 19 and 28 on page 2 of the 1040 form were also adjusted to account for the fact that the child tax credit is fully refundable for the 2021 tax year. Line 27 was also modified and expanded (including a new check box) to satisfy changes to the earned income tax credit. (See more about changes to the child tax credit and earned income credit below.)
The idea of having a postcard-size tax form has been totally abandoned, too. We see this in the expansion of Schedules 1, 2, and 3 that go with the 1040 form. For 2020 returns, each of these schedules fit on one page. Now, for 2021 tax returns, they're each two pages long. The extra length is due to various additions to income, "above-the-line" deductions, extra taxes, and less common credits now getting their own line on these forms instead of being lump together as an "other" item to include.
Approximately 90% of all taxpayers claim the standard deduction instead of itemized deductions. Fortunately, the standard deduction amounts you'll use on your 2021 tax return are larger than last year, thanks to the annual adjustment for inflation. For the 1040 form you'll complete this year, married couples filing a joint return can claim a $25,100 standard deduction. That's a $300 increase over the 2020 tax year amount. For each spouse 65 years of age or older, you can tack on an additional $1,350 ($1,300 for 2020).
Single filers can claim a $12,550 standard deduction on their 2021 tax return ($12,400 for 2020). That jumps to $14,250 if you're at least 65 years old ($14,050 for 2020).
For head-of-household filers, the standard deduction for 2021 tax returns is $18,800 ($18,650 for 2020), plus an additional $1,700 if they're at least 65 years old.
Regardless of their filing status, blind people can add an additional $1,350 to their 2021 standard deduction ($1,700 if they're unmarried and not a surviving spouse).
The tax rates you'll see on your 2021 tax return are the same as they were last year: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37%. However, the income ranges that apply to each tax rate bracket have changed. Use the tables below to find the appropriate tax bracket for your 2021 return. It's based on your filing status and taxable income (Line 15 of your 1040 form).
Remember, though, that the tax rate associated with the bracket you fall into doesn't apply to all your income. It only applies to the amount of your taxable income that's within the bracket's range. So, for example, if you're single with $50,000 of taxable income in 2021, only the last $9,475 of your taxable income is taxed at the 22% rate ($50,000 - $40,525 = $9,475). The rest is taxed at either the 10% or 12% rate.
2021 Tax Brackets for Single Filers and Married Couples Filing Jointly
Up to $9,950
Up to $19,900
$9,951 to $40,525
$19,901 to $81,050
$40,526 to $86,375
$81,051 to $172,750
$86,376 to $164,925
$172,751 to $329,850
$164,926 to $209,425
$329,851 to $418,850
$209,426 to $523,600
$418,851 to $628,300
2021 Tax Brackets for Married Couples Filing Separately and Head-of-Household Filers
Up to $9,950
Up to $14,200
$9,951 to $40,525
$14,201 to $54,200
$40,526 to $86,375
$54,201 to $86,350
$86,376 to $164,925
$86,351 to $164,900
$164,926 to $209,425
$164,901 to $209,400
$209,426 to $314,150
$209,401 to $523,600
Capital Gains Tax Rate Thresholds
If you hold on to a capital asset (e.g., stocks, bonds, real estate, art, etc.) for at least one year, any gains from the sale of the asset are taxed at a lower capital gains rate – either 0%, 15%, or 20%. The same rates apply to qualified dividends. Which rate applies to you depends on your taxable income.
For your 2021 federal income tax return, the 0% rate applies if you're single with taxable income up to $40,400 ($40,000 for 2020), a head-of-household filer with taxable income up to $54,100 ($53,600 for 2020), or a married couple filing a joint return with up to $80,800 of taxable income ($80,000 for 2020).
The 20% rate kicks in at $445,851 of taxable income for single filers ($441,451 for 2020), $473,751 for head-of-household filers ($469,051 for 2020), and $501,601 for joint filers ($496,601 for 2020).
If your taxable income falls between the 0% and 20% thresholds for your filing status, then the 15% rate applies.
Deduction for Cash Donations to Charity
As mentioned above, the $300 deduction for cash contributions to charity no longer affects your federal AGI. There's also another important change to this deduction for 2021 tax year returns – married couples can now deduct up to $600. For 2020 returns, married couples who filed jointly could only deduct $300. However, one deduction is allowed per person now, which means each spouse can deduct up to $300 on a joint 2021 return.
Note that this deduction is only available if you claim the standard deduction. It also expired at the end of 2021, so you won't be able to claim it on your 2022 return.
Earned Income Tax Credit
Several significant upgrades to the 2021 earned income tax credit (EITC) were made by the American Rescue Plan Act. The biggest changes will allow more childless workers to claim the EITC on their 2021 tax return. For one thing, the minimum age for claiming the credit without a qualifying child is lowered from 25 to 19 (except for certain full-time students). Workers over the age of 65 can claim the credit on their 2021 return, too. The maximum credit available for workers without a qualifying child also jumps from $543 to $1,502. Expanded eligibility rules for former foster youth and homeless youth were put in place for the 2021 tax year as well.
While the modified rules listed above for childless workers only apply for the 2021 tax year, the American Rescue Plan Act made a few other changes to the EITC that are permanent. For example, the $3,650 limit on a worker's investment income is bumped up to $10,000, and the cap will be adjusted for inflation each year going forward. In addition, certain married couples who are separated can now claim the credit on separate tax returns. And certain workers who can't satisfy the EITC identification requirements for their children can now qualify for the credit as a childless worker.
Finally, as with the 2020 EITC, you can use your 2019 earned income to calculate your 2021 EITC if it's more than your 2021 earned income. Since this can increase or decrease your EITC, calculate the credit using both your 2019 and 2021 earned income to see which method will save you the most money.
To calculate your EITC, complete the worksheets associated with Lines 27a, 27b, and 27c of Form 1040 in the instructions for Form 1040. If you have a qualifying child, also complete Schedule EIC and attach it to your 1040 form.
Child Tax Credit
As with the earned income tax credit, the American Rescue Plan Act made major improvements to the child tax credit for the 2021 tax year. For instance, the credit amount for 2021 tax returns was increased from $2,000-per-child to $3,000-per-child six to 17 years of age and to $3,600-per-child five years old and younger. However, the extra $1,000 or $1,600 is phased out for single filers with a federal AGI above $75,000, head-of-household filers with a federal AGI above $112,500, and joint filers with a federal AGI above $150,000. The credit is further reduced under pre-existing rules for single and head-of-household filers with a federal AGI above $200,000 and married couples filing jointly with a federal AGI above $400,000.
Any child tax credit claimed on your 2021 return is also fully refundable for most parents, even if you don't have any earned income (normally, the credit is only partially refundable – up to $1,400-per-child – and you must have at least $2,500 of earned income). Children who are 17 years old also qualify for the 2021 credit (child normally must be 16 or younger to qualify). Finally, unless you opted-out of the payments, families received 50% of their estimated 2021 child tax credit amount in advance through monthly payments sent between July 15 and December 15 last year.
To calculate the child tax credit allowed on your 2021 tax return, you must subtract the monthly payments you received last year from the total credit that you're otherwise entitled to claim for the 2021 tax year. (The IRS will send you a Letter 6419 showing the amount paid to you in monthly payments.) If the total child tax credit amount is more than your combined monthly payments, you can claim the excess amount as a credit on your return. However, if the total credit amount is less than your payments, you might have to pay back the extra child credit payments.
Use Schedule 8812 to reconcile the advance payments you received last year with the actual child tax credit you're entitled to claim on your 1040 form, and to see if you need to pay back any payments (they will be paid back in the form of an additional tax calculated Part III of the schedule).
For more information about claiming the 2021 credit, see Child Tax Credit FAQs for Your 2021 Tax Return.
Child and Dependent Care Credit
Parents benefiting from the child tax credit enhancements may be able to cut their 2021 tax bill even further because of big changes to the child and dependent care credit made by the American Rescue Plan Act. For example, the maximum credit is increased from 35% to 50% of eligible expenses for the 2021 tax year. Plus, the credit percentage won't be reduced for families making less than $125,000 a year (instead of $15,000 per year), and all taxpayers earning less than $438,000 can claim at least a partial credit on their 2021 return.
The 2021 credit applies to more child or dependent care expenses, too. The credit percentage is applied to as much as $8,000 of eligible expenses for one child/disabled person and up to $16,000 of expenses for two or more (the amounts are usually $3,000 and $6,000, respectively). That means the total credit amount can be as high as $4,000 if you have just one child/disabled person and $8,000 if you have more ($1,050 and $2,100, respectively, for 2020).
The child and dependent care credit for the 2021 tax year is also fully refundable for most people (it's usually a nonrefundable credit). Form 2441 is used to calculate the credit.
See Your Child Care Tax Credit May Be Bigger on Your 2021 Tax Return for details.
Premium Tax Credit
The American Rescue Plan Act improved the premium tax credit for 2021 and 2022 to lower premiums for people who buy health insurance through an Obamacare exchange (e.g., HealthCare.gov) on their own. The credit amount was increased for eligible taxpayers by reducing the percentage of annual income that households are required to contribute toward their health insurance premium. The law also allowed the credit to be claimed by people with an income above 400% of the federal poverty line.
For certain people who purchase health insurance through an exchange, an estimated premium tax credit amount is paid in advance to the insurance company. If advance payments are made on your behalf, you must reconcile the credit and the advance payments when you file your tax return. If the advance payments are greater than the actual allowable credit, the difference (subject to certain repayment caps) usually must be paid back. However, the American Rescue Plan Act eliminated the repayment requirement – but only for the 2020 tax year. As a result, excess advance payments made in 2021 will have to be repaid when you file your 2021 tax return.
Use Form 8962 to calculate your premium tax credit and reconcile it with any advance payments. Also make sure you submit Form 8962 with the rest of your 2021 tax return.
The nonrefundable credit for expenses related to the adoption of a child is a little larger for the 2021 tax year. For 1040 forms filed this year, the credit can be worth up to $14,440 ($14,300 for 2020). Plus, the full credit is available for a special-needs adoption, even if it costs less.
The credit begins to phase out if your modified AGI is over $216,660 and it's eliminated altogether if your modified AGI reaches $256,660 ($214,520 and $254,520, respectively, for 2020). To claim the credit, complete Form 8839 and report the credit amount on Line 6c of Schedule 3. Also submit Form 8839 with the rest of your 2021 tax return.
The income tax exclusion for company-paid adoption aid was also increased from $14,300 to $14,440 for the 2021 tax year.
Alternative Minimum Tax
The alternative minimum tax (AMT) was originally designed to hit only wealthier Americans. However, the AMT exemption amount wasn't always adjusted annual for inflation – but it is now. For the 2021 tax year, the AMT exemption jumped from $113,400 to $114,600 for married couples filing a joint return and from $72,900 to $73,600 for single and head-of-household filers.
The phase-out ranges for the AMT exemption are adjusted for inflation each year, too. For 2021 tax returns, the exemption is gradually reduced and can ultimately be eliminated if alternative minimum taxable income (AMTI) on a joint return is between $1,047,200 and $1,505,600 ($1,036,800 and $1,490,400 for 2020). For single and head-of-household filers, the 2021 phase-out range is $523,600 to $818,000 of AMTI ($518,400 to $810,000 for 2020). The 2021 range for married people filing a separate return is $523,600 to $752,800 ($518,400 to $745,200 for 2020).
In addition, the 28% AMT tax rate doesn't kick on 2021 tax returns until you hit $199,900 of AMTI. That's an increase over the 2020 threshold, which was AMTI of $197,900 or more.
Use Form 6251 to calculate your AMT and file the form with your 2021 Form 1040.
Tax Breaks for Education
Say goodbye to the tuition and fees deduction, which was worth up to $4,000 per year. It was repealed starting with the 2021 tax year.
On the bright side, the phase-out thresholds for the lifetime learning credit were increased. They're now the same as the phase-out amounts for the American Opportunity credit. So, beginning with 2021 tax returns, the lifetime learning credit is gradually reduced to zero for joint filers with a modified AGI from $160,000 to $180,000 ($118,000 to $138,000 for 2020) and single filers with a modified AGI between $80,000 to $90,000 ($59,000 and $69,000 for 2020). If you're claiming either the lifetime learning credit or the American Opportunity credit, you must first complete Form 8863 and then attach it to your 1040 form.
The phase-out ranges are also higher in 2021 for the exclusion of interest on Series EE and I savings bonds redeemed to help pay for tuition and fees for college, graduate school, or vocational school. For 2021 tax returns, the exclusion starts to phase out for joint filers with a modified AGI exceeding $124,800 and for other people with a modified AGI of $83,200 or more ($123,550 and $82,350, respectively, for 2020). The exclusion is totally phased-out for joint filers with a modified AGI of $154,800 or more and for other taxpayers with a modified AGI of at least $98,200 ($153,550 and $97,350, respectively, for 2020). You must compete Form 8815 to claim the exclusion and then report the exclusion amount on Line 3 of Schedule B.
Recovery Rebate Credit
The recovery rebate credit is back, but with one important change. As you may recall, this credit made its first appearance on the 2020 Form 1040 and was available for people who didn't receive a first or second stimulus check, or who didn't receive the full stimulus check amount they were entitled to.
For 2021 tax returns, the credit is for people who didn't receive a third stimulus check (or didn't receive the full amount). Those payments were for up to $1,400, plus an additional $1,400 for each dependent in your family. Similar to the monthly child tax credit payments the IRS sent last year, your third stimulus check was an advance payment of the recovery rebate credit. As a result, when you file your 2021 return, you must reduce the recovery rebate credit you're entitled to claim by the amount of your third stimulus check. (The IRS will send you a Letter 6475 showing the amount of your third stimulus check.) For most people, your third stimulus check payment will equal the 2021 recovery rebate credit allowed. If that's the case for you, the credit will be reduced to zero. But if your third stimulus check was less than the credit, your recovery rebate credit will equal the difference. And what if your third stimulus check was more than your 2021 recovery rebate credit? You get to keep the difference!
Use our Third Stimulus Check Calculator to see you how large your third stimulus check should have been.
Tax Breaks for Retirement Savings
Two tax breaks that encourage saving for retirement were tweaked for the 2021 tax year. In both cases, the changes are the result of annual adjustments for inflation.
The first retirement-related change for 2021 tax returns is to the deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA. If either you or your spouse was covered by an employer retirement plan, your IRA deduction may be reduced (potentially to zero), depending on your filing status and income. The income levels that trigger a reduction for 2021 returns have been adjusted. For married couples filing a joint return, the deduction is gradually phased out if you're modified AGI is between $105,000 and $125,000 (between $104,000 and $124,000 for 2020 returns). For single and head-of-household filers, the phase-out range is from $66,000 to $76,000 ($65,000 to $75,000 for 2020).
If only one spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work, the deduction is reduced if the couple's modified AGI exceeds $198,000, and it's totally eliminated if their modified AGI hits $208,000 ($196,000 and $206,000, respectively, for 2020). (NOTE: If you made any nondeductible contributions to a traditional IRA for 2021, report them on Form 8606.)
The second change is to the "Saver's Credit," which encourages lower- and middle-income people to save for retirement. The credit is allowed for either 10%, 20%, or 50% of the first $2,000 ($4,000 for joint filers) you contribute to retirement accounts, depending on your filing status and income. The lower your income, the higher the percentage you can use to calculate the credit. For 2021 tax returns, single filers, married people filing a separate return, and qualified widow(er)s can claim a 50% credit if their AGI is $19,750 or less ($19,500 for 2020). They can claim a 20% credit if their AGI is from $19,751 to $21,500 ($19,501 to $21,250 for 2020), and the 10% credit is available if their AGI is from $21,501 to $33,000 ($21,251 to $32,500).
For married couples filing a joint return, the 50% credit is available if their AGI doesn't exceed $39,500 ($39,000 for 2020), the 20% credit is available if their AGI is from $39,501 to $43,000 ($39,001 to $42,500 for 2020), and the 10% credit is available if their AGI is from $43,001 to $66,000 ($42,501 to $65,000 for 2020).
The 50% credit can be claimed by head-of-household filers with an AGI of $29,625 or less ($29,250 for 2020), while they can claim the 20% credit with an AGI from $29,626 to $32,250 ($29,251 to $31,875 for 2020) and the 10% credit with an AGI from $32,251 to $49,500 ($31,876 to $48,750 for 2020).
To claim the credit, complete Form 8880 and send it to the IRS with your 1040 form.
Standard Mileage Rates
For 2021 tax returns, standard mileage rate for business driving is 56¢ a mile – that's less than the 57.5¢ per mile for 2020. The rate for medical travel and military moves also dropped for the 2021 tax year from 17¢ to 16¢ a mile.
The mileage rate for charitable driving doesn't change from year-to-year. So, it stayed put at 14¢ a mile for 2021 returns.
Self-employed taxpayers can claim some tax breaks that other people can't. And some of those tax breaks are tweaked for 2021 tax returns. For instance, the sick or family leave credits self-employed people could claim on their 2020 tax return if they missed work for Covid-related reasons was extended for 2021 – but not for the full year. For 2021 returns, the credits are only available for qualified absences through September 30, 2021. In addition, the family leave credit can only be claimed for 50 days missed from January 1 to March 31, 2021, but it can be claimed for up to 60 days missed from April 1 to September 30, 2021. Self-employed people should use Form 7202 to calculate the sick and family leave credits they're entitled to claim on their 2021 1040 form.
The income threshold for limits on the 20% deduction for qualified business income were also adjusted for the 2021 tax year. The taxable income threshold is $329,800 for married couples filing a joint return, $164,925 for married people filing a separate return, and $164,900 for all others ($326,600 for joint filers and $163,300 for all others for 2020 returns). Use Form 8995 or Form 8995-A to figure your qualified business income deduction.
Self-employed people who are wining and dining clients can take advantage of another perk for both the 2021 and 2022 tax years. The deduction for business meals at a restaurant is increased from 50% to 100%. This deduction is claimed on Line 24b of Schedule C.
If a self-employed person had a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan forgiven in 2021, the canceled debt is not taxable income and doesn't have to be reported on Form 1040. However, if you have tax-exempt income resulting from the discharge of a PPP loan last year, you must attach a statement to your 2021 tax return that includes certain information related to your PPP loan (see the instructions to Form 1040 for details). You should also write "RP2021-48" at the top of the statement.
Unfortunately, there are also a couple of negative changes that may increase the 2021 tax bill for some self-employed taxpayers. First, none of the self-employment taxes owed for the 2021 tax year can be deferred as they could on 2020 returns. In fact, half of any 2020 tax deferred had to be paid by the end of 2021, while the rest is due by the end of 2022. Second, the cap on deductible business losses is back after being suspended for the 2018 to 2020 tax years. For 2021 tax returns, the inflation-adjusted limit is $262,000 ($524,000 for married couples filing a joint return). Form 461 is used to calculate a self-employed taxpayer's limitation on business losses.
The $10,200 exemption for unemployment compensation in effect for the 2020 tax year is no more. Under the American Rescue Plan Act, which authorized the exemption for families with a federal AGI less than $150,000, the tax break was for one year only.
As a result, any unemployment compensation you received last year will be fully taxed on your 2021 tax return. Report the benefits on Line 7 of Schedule 1.
Long-Term Care Insurance Deduction
If you're paying for long-term care insurance, you might be able to deduct a portion of your premiums – and the deduction maximums, which are based on age, are higher for the 2021 tax year. Taxpayers age 71 or older can deduct up to $5,640 per person on their 2021 tax return ($5,430 for 2020). If you're 61 to 70 years old, you can deduct as much as $4,520 of your premiums ($4,350 for 2020). Anyone 51 to 60 years old can write-off up to $1,690 ($1,630 for 2020). For people 41 to 50 years of age, the max is $850 ($810 for 2020). And, finally, the maximum deduction is $450 if you're 40 or younger ($430 for 2020).
Long-term care insurance premiums are only deductible as medical expenses for most people, which means they must itemize deductions on Schedule A to claim the tax break. However, self-employed people can deduct their premiums on Line 17 of Schedule 1 without having to itemize.
Student Loan Discharge
Before the 2021 tax year, canceled or forgiven student loan debt was considered taxable income. However, from 2021 to 2025, most canceled student loan debt that was incurred for a post-secondary education is tax-free. Therefore, you shouldn't report qualified student loan debt that was canceled last year on Line 8c of Schedule 1.
The IRS has also told lenders and student loan servicer providers not to file Form 1099-C or submit payee statements for qualified student loan debt that's discharged, canceled, or otherwise forgiven through 2025. So, if you do receive a 1099-C form reporting discharged student loan debt that you believe is not taxable, contact the lender or loan service provider that issued the form and ask them to send a corrected form.
Foreign Earned Income Exclusion
Americans working abroad may be able to exclude all or a portion of their foreign-earned income from taxable income on their U.S. tax return. For 2021 returns, the maximum exclusion amount is $1,100 higher than it was for the 2020 tax year – it jumped from $107,600 to $108,700.
In addition to the foreign earned income exclusion, taxpayers living abroad may also be able to claim an exclusion or deduction for their foreign housing. For the 2021 tax year, the maximum foreign housing exclusion is generally $15,218 ($15,064 for 2020), although it can be higher in certain high-cost areas.
Use Form 2555 to figure both your foreign earned income exclusion and foreign housing exclusion/deduction.