The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act received plenty of publicity for providing a third round of stimulus checks and an extension of federal unemployment benefits. But those $1,400 checks and $300-per-week benefits were only two of a long list of provisions. Here are six more provisions that could affect your taxes and health insurance coverage in 2021 and the years that follow…
Extra help with Obamacare health insurance premiums. If you obtain health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ACA) marketplace in 2021 and/or 2022, your odds of qualifying for subsidies to pay part of your insurance premiums are better than ever. Previously, subsidies were available only when household income was at or below 400% of the federal poverty level—for an individual, that meant a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) below $51,520…for a couple, below $69,680. But this year and next, you could be eligible to receive subsidies despite income well above these levels if the cost of the “benchmark plan”—that’s the second-lowest-cost “silver” ACA plan in your area—exceeds 8.5% of your household income. Example: A 60-year-old couple pays $20,000 a year for the benchmark silver plan. If this couple’s household income is $100,000, they would have to pay $8,500 out of pocket—the remaining $11,500 would be covered by the subsidies. Under the prior rules, they would have received no assistance.
What’s more, if you already qualified for ACA subsidies, you’re likely to receive larger subsidies in 2021 and 2022 under the new rules, due to changes in how the subsidies are calculated.
What to do: If you don’t have access to group health insurance or Medicare, shop for 2022 health insurance on the ACA marketplace to compare options before purchasing coverage directly from an insurance company. You might qualify for ACA subsidies next year even if you never have before.
Help paying for employer-provided health insurance if you lose your job. When people lose their jobs, they often have the option of remaining on their former employer’s health insurance plan and paying the premium themselves for up to an additional 18 months and in some cases longer through a program known as COBRA. The Rescue Act offers a temporary solution—if you’re involuntarily terminated, the entire cost of your COBRA premiums could be covered by your former employer (who will recoup the cost through tax credits)—though only from April through the end of September 2021.
What to do: If you’re laid off, ask your former employer’s benefits department if you qualify for COBRA and, if so, confirm that the Rescue Act subsidies still are available. If you do qualify, there’s no need to apply for subsidies or tax credits—the financial assistance will be provided through the former employer or the company that manages the former employer’s group health plan. But you may be out of luck if your former employer is not required by law to offer COBRA to employees (generally if the company had fewer than 20 full-time employees)…though as noted above, you still could qualify for help with Obamacare premiums.
Tax breaks if you receive student loan breaks. When a student loan is forgiven or discharged for less than the full amount owed, the IRS typically considers the amount that is forgiven to be taxable income. But a provision in the Rescue Act temporarily changes that—income taxes will not apply to the vast majority of student loans forgiven/discharged from 2021 through the end of 2025. This, of course, leads to the question, So how do I get my student loans forgiven or discharged? It’s actually difficult and rare.
What to do: If you or a loved one has student loans, keep an eye out for loan forgiveness programs.
Tax breaks for people who were unemployed in 2020. Unemployment benefits typically are taxed as income, but the Rescue Act makes an exception—up to $10,200 in 2020 unemployment compensation is nontaxable. If both spouses in a married couple lost their jobs, each can exclude up to $10,200 from their taxes. This tax break is not available to anyone with a 2020 MAGI of $150,000 or more, however, including married couples whose joint income exceeds this limit. Unemployment benefits received in 2021 remain taxable.
What to do: If you filed your 2020 income taxes before this act was passed and paid taxes on unemployment benefits, do not file an amended return. The IRS has said that it will automatically revise the returns that were filed before the law was changed.
Expanded tax credits for families with kids. Taxpayers typically can claim a $2,000 credit for each dependent child age 16 and younger. The Rescue Act increases that credit for 2021—this year, it’s $3,600 for each child who has not yet reached his/her sixth birthday by year-end…and $3,000 for children ages six to 17. Note that 17-year-olds qualify in 2021—the usual cut-off is 16. This credit also is fully refundable in 2021—that is, you can receive it as a refund if it exceeds the amount of income tax you owe. There also will be an option to obtain this credit through periodic payments disbursed throughout the year rather than waiting until after 2021 taxes are filed. Precisely how these disbursements will occur was still being worked out as of press time, though the first payment is expected in July. High earners do not qualify for the expanded credit, however—it phases out if MAGI exceeds $150,000 ($75,000 if filing as single).
What to do: If you have dependent children, visit IRS.gov/individuals/parents to opt into or out of the periodic payments program and update relevant data, such as your income—the IRS is expected to release the latest information related to the credit here.
Bigger tax breaks for child care. The “dependent care assistance” tax credit, available to working and job-hunting parents who pay for daycare, babysitting and/or summer day camps, has been greatly expanded for 2021. Previously applied to expenses up to $3,000 for one dependent and $6,000 for two or more, this credit now is applied to expenses up to $8,000 for one child and up to $16,000 for two or more in 2021. And while this credit normally equals 35% of qualifying care expenses, that’s increased to 50% in 2021. And unlike in prior years, the credit will be refundable in 2021. Some details worth noting: The recipient of the care must be younger than 13 and/or disabled…and the credit starts to phase out when household AGI tops $125,000. See IRS Publication 503, Child and Dependent Care Expenses, for details.