By John Waggoner, AARP, Updated May 27, 2020
Some worry the money will get reported as income on 2020 tax returns.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has sent out more than 140 million stimulus payments since the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27.
As people start to spend their money, some wonder: Is my stimulus payment taxable?
The short answer: No. In the somewhat longer words of the IRS: “No, the payment is not income and taxpayers will not owe tax on it. The payment will not reduce a taxpayer's refund or increase the amount they owe when they file their 2020 tax return next year. A payment also will not affect income for purposes of determining eligibility for federal government assistance or benefit programs."
Not your average tax credit
The stimulus payment — or economic impact payment, as the IRS calls it — is technically a tax credit for 2020. But this isn't widely understood.
Some people assume that the IRS will add the amount to your income, generating a bigger tax bill, or reduce your future tax refund when you file your tax return next year. Neither is the case, but this bears some explaining.
In the tax world, a tax deduction is a good thing. It reduces your income, which reduces the amount of tax you owe. If you had $50,000 in income and had a $5,000 tax deduction, your deduction would reduce your taxable income by $5,000. If you were in the 12 percent tax bracket, you'd reduce your taxes owed by $600 (12 percent of $5,000).
A tax deduction is good, but a tax credit is very good. A tax credit reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. If you owe $1,500 in federal income taxes and you get a $1,000 tax credit, your tax bill sinks to $500.
A refundable tax credit is a thing of wonder. A garden-variety tax credit can reduce your tax bill to zero, but it can't turn a tax bill into a tax refund. Refundable tax credits can. For example, if you owed $1,000 in taxes but had a refundable tax credit of $1,200, you'd get a $200 tax refund check from Uncle Sam.
Because you're getting what amounts to a refundable tax credit now in the form of a stimulus payment, rather than waiting to get the money from the credit in 2021 when you actually file your 2020 tax return, you're in effect getting an advanced refundable tax credit.
Recover missed stimulus payments on 2020 tax returns
If, for some reason, you don't get any stimulus payment this year, but you're owed one, you can get it next year when you file your 2020 tax return.
If you don't get the full amount that you were entitled to this year — say, if you weren't able to get the $500 payment for an eligible child under 17 — you could also get that from your 2020 tax return when you file it in 2021.
What if it turns out that your stimulus payment was more than you were actually allowed? For example, suppose the IRS based your stimulus payment on your 2018 or 2019 tax return, when your income was lower, but your income is much higher for 2020?
“If someone has income in 2020 that is higher than the tax return to calculate the advance rebate, they will not have to pay the credit back,” says Garrett Watson, senior tax policy analyst for the Tax Foundation, an independent, nonprofit tax policy organization.
“In other words, any adjustments to a taxpayer's rebate on 2020 tax returns will be in the taxpayer's favor."