Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC): What It Is & How to Qualify in 2021

In general, the less you earn, the larger the credit. Families with children often qualify for the largest credits.

NerdWalletMarch 6, 2021
Can You Take the Earned Income Tax Credit
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What is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC or EIC)?

The Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC or EITC) is a refundable tax credit for low- and moderate-income workers. For 2021, the earned income credit ranges from $543 to $6,728 depending on tax-filing status, income and number of children. People without kids can qualify.

For 2020, the earned income tax credit ranges from $538 to $6,660.

If you fall within the guidelines for the credit, be sure to claim it on your return when you do your taxes  And if you didn’t claim the earned income credit when you filed your taxes in the last three years but you think you qualified for it, the IRS encourages you to let it know so you can get that money back.

How does the Earned Income Tax Credit work?

Here are some quick facts about the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC or EIC):

  • For the 2020 tax year (the tax return due April 15, 2021), the earned income credit ranges from $538 to $6,660 depending on your filing status and how many children you have.

  • For the 2020 tax year, there are special rules due to coronavirus: You can use either your 2019 income or your 2020 income to calculate your EITC, and you can use whichever number gets you the bigger EITC. (This is also the case for the Child Tax Credit.) Be sure to ask your tax preparer to run the numbers both ways.

  • For the 2021 tax year (the tax return you'll file in 2022), the earned income credit ranges from $543 to $6,728 depending on your filing status and how many children you have.

  • You don't have to have a child in order to claim the earned income credit.

  • The earned income tax credit doesn't just cut the amount of tax you owe — the EIC could also score you a refund, and in some cases a refund that's more than what you actually paid in taxes.

Who qualifies for the Earned Income Tax Credit?

Besides staying below the income thresholds noted above, there are other qualification rules and requirements. Here are the big eligibility rules, but you can also check out our quiz below for a quick read on whether you might qualify for the earned income tax credit.

  • You must have at least $1 of earned income (pensions and unemployment don't count).

  • Your investment income must be $3,650 or less.

  • You can’t claim the earned income tax credit if you’re married filing separately.

  • You must not file Form 2555, Foreign Earned Income; or Form 2555-EZ, Foreign Earned Income Exclusion.

There are special EIC rules for members of the military and the clergy, as well as for people who have disability income or who have children with disabilities.

Income limit for the earned income credit

Below are the maximum earned income tax credit amounts, plus the max you can earn before losing the benefit altogether.

2020 Earned Income Tax Credit

(for taxes due in April 2021)

Number of children

Maximum earned income tax credit

Max earnings, single or head of household filers

Max earnings, joint filers

0

$538

$15,820

$21,710

1

$3,584

$41,756

$47,646

2

$5,920

$47,440

$53,330

3 or more

$6,660

$50,954

$56,844

  • Both your earned income and your adjusted gross income each have to be below the levels in the table.

  • In general, the less you earn, the larger the earned income credit.

  • Your earned income usually includes job wages, salary, tips and other taxable pay you get from your employer. Your adjusted gross income is your earned income minus certain deductions.

2021 Earned Income Tax Credit

(for taxes due in April 2022)

Number of children

Maximum earned income tax credit

Max earnings, single or head of household filers

Max earnings, joint filers

0

$543

$15,980

$21,920

1

$3,618

$42,158

$48,108

2

$5,980

$47,915

$53,865

3 or more

$6,728

$51,464

$57,414

Kids and the Earned Income Tax Credit

If you claim one or more children as part of your earned income credit, each must pass certain tests to qualify:

  • The child can be your son, daughter, adopted child, stepchild, foster child or grandchild. The child also can be your brother, sister, half-brother or half-sister, stepbrother or stepsister or any of their children (your niece or nephew).

  • The child must be under 19 at the end of the year and younger than you or your spouse if you're filing jointly, OR the child must be under 24 if he or she was a full-time student. There's no age limit for kids who are permanently and totally disabled.

  • The child must have lived with you or your spouse in the United States for more than half the year.

For each child you're claiming with the EIC, you’ll also need:

  • A Social Security number (be sure to use the child’s name and Social Security number exactly as they appear on the Social Security card)

  • His or her birthdate

If you don't have kids

You may be able to get the EIC if you don’t have a qualifying child but meet the income requirements for your filing status. To qualify, you must meet three more conditions:

  1. You must have resided in the United States for more than half the year.

  2. No one can claim you as a dependent or qualifying child on his or her tax return.

  3. You must be at least 25 but under 65 at the end of the year.

Not only does an error on your tax form delay the EIC part of your refund — sometimes for several months — but it also means the IRS could deny the entire earned income credit.

If the IRS denies your whole EIC claim:

  • You must pay back any EIC amount you’ve been paid in error, plus interest.

  • You might need to file Form 8862, "Information to Claim Earned Income Credit After Disallowance," before you can claim the EIC again.

  • You could be banned from claiming EIC for the next two years if the IRS finds you filed your return with “reckless or intentional disregard of the rules.”

  • You could be banned from claiming EIC for the next 10 years if the IRS finds you filed your return fraudulently.

Most tax software walks you through the EIC with a series of interview questions, greatly simplifying the process. (Plus, if you qualify for the EIC, you might be able to get free tax software.) But remember: Even if someone else prepares your return for you, the IRS holds you responsible for all information on any return you submit.

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See 2021’s best tax software and more. All backed by tons of nerdy research.

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