IRS Can Help You Look After the Kids


Most working parents are well aware they get a tax break to help cover the costs of sending Jimmy or Janie to day care. But some parents overlook the tax advantage of summer day camp costs.

During school vacations, many parents turn to these supervised programs to provide child care while they work. Overnight camps don't count, but the Internal Revenue Service says day camp expenses do qualify for this popular credit.

Regardless of whether you paid for after-class child care during the school year or a week of day camp during summer break, you can apply the costs to the Child and Dependent Care tax credit and use it to cut your tax bill at filing time.

And while this credit also applies to care for dependents other than children, there are limits -- on what you spend as well as how much you earn -- that reduce the actual amount of the credit. Plus, you must make sure you and the person being cared for meet IRS eligibility guidelines.

In addition to summer day camp, here are some care services that are eligible for the credit.

Actual care Cost Limits

The first thing to keep in mind is that the credit probably will not pay for all of your child care costs. The IRS limits the dollar amount you can claim and you only get to count a percentage of that amount.

You can claim only up to $3,000 for the care of one person and $6,000 for two or more. Then this amount is further reduced based on your overall income (more on this later).

There is some good news, however. If you paid someone to watch over your two (or more) kids, you can combine all your care costs to reach the $6,000 limit.

In the case of Janie and Jimmy, their folks could count the $2,800 for Janie's care and $3,200 for Jimmy's in order to claim a total of $6,000, instead of only $5,800 by adding $2,800 plus $3,000. By using the total amount rather than splitting the actual costs and then applying the limits and figuring the credit, they'll get a larger tax break.

Percentage Restrictions

The second limit is the percentage of costs that you can claim. Once you determine your allowable expense amount, your actual credit is limited to a percentage of that figure.

So regardless of how much you pay, the potential maximum child and dependent care credit is $1,050 (35% of $3,000) for the care of one person, twice that for two or more. Depending upon your income, the percentage range drops from 35% to 20% of your allowable care costs.

The 35% rate is only for lower-income taxpayers. If you make more than $15,000, the credit percentage is incrementally phased down by salary range until it hits 20% for those earning more than $43,000.

And even if your care costs come up to the maximum credit amount, you may not get it all if your tax bill is less than your allowable credit. The dependent care credit is not refundable, meaning it can only take your tax bill to zero. Any excess credit is not usable.

For example, if you claim a $1,050 maximum credit for the care of one child and owe $750, the IRS will use your credit to wipe out your tax bill, but you won't get the extra $300 as a refund.

Defining Dependents

If you pay for child care, you can claim this credit to help offset some of your costs as long as your child meets IRS guidelines.

The youngster must be younger than 13. He or she also must meet the requirements set out in the IRS' dependent requirements. Basically, this means the child must be related to you and live with you most of the time. There are exceptions in the cases of divorced or separated parents, so read the tax filing instructions carefully or consult your tax adviser if this is your situation.

But the Child and Dependent Care credit is not limited to child care costs. It also can be claimed when you pay for care of other dependents as they are deemed qualified by the IRS. For example, if you pay someone to look after your spouse or a dependent of any age who is incapacitated because of physical or mental limitations, you might be eligible for this tax break.

Only Working Taxpayers Need Apply

Then there's the credit's job catch. You can only claim dependent care that was necessary so that you can go to or look for work.

If you're married, the IRS requires both of you to be employed or seeking a job. The only exception is when one spouse is either a full-time student or is physically or mentally incapable of self-care.

After clearing the employment hurdle, other requirements to claim the credit include:

*A filing status of single, head of household, married filing jointly or qualifying widow or widower with a dependent child. In most cases, married taxpayers who file separate returns cannot claim the dependent-care credit.

*The payments for care cannot be made to someone you can claim as your dependent on your return or to your child who is younger than age 19.

To claim Child and Dependent Care credit, complete and attach Form 2441 to your return, either Form 1040 or Form 1040A.

Identify Your Caregivers

You also must include on the tax forms the name and taxpayer identification numbers of the caregivers.

If it's a business, the operator can provide you with the employer identification number. You also can use Form W-10, Dependent Care Provider's Identification and Certification, to request this information from the care provider. For individual providers, you generally use the person's Social Security number.

You might have some additional filing duties related to this credit depending upon who you hire and how you cover the costs.

If you pay someone to come to your home to provide the care, you may be considered a household employer and have to pay employment taxes.

Company Benefit Considerations

Finally, if you received any dependent care benefits from your employer during the year, you will have to complete Part III of Form 2441 or Schedule 2 to determine the amount of your credit. These amounts are listed in box 10 of your W-2.

Company benefits include money you receive directly from your employer or that was paid by your employer to your care provider. The fair market value of a company-provided day care facility also counts, as does money you put into a dependent care flexible spending account to pay care expenses.

For example, if your company provides untaxed dependent-care benefits directly to you, those amounts reduce the amount of expenses you can claim. If the company pays you $1,000 for child care costs, you must reduce your credit amount by that payment, so a $3,000 limit now becomes $2,000 to offset the company payments.

In the case of a spending account, if you paid $10,000 for a nursery school to look after your two children while you were at work, $6,000 is the maximum allowable credit amount. But you used $5,000 from your workplace flexible spending account to pay part of those costs, so the account money will reduce how much you can claim toward the child care credit -- the $6,000 maximum care expense amount is cut to $1,000.

In both these instances, because the workplace child care assistance is not taxable income to you, you cannot use those amounts to help further cut your tax bill.