Sunday, February 28, 2021

Your 2020 Tax Return and the Stimulus Payments


Let’s talk about your 2020 personal tax return and the two stimulus payments that you (may have) received.

The first round of stimulus checks was up to $1,200 for each spouse and $500 for each qualifying child.

The second round was up to $600 for each spouse and qualifying child.

So, if you have two qualifying kids and qualified for the maximum, you would have received $5,800 ($3,400 plus $2,400) between the two rounds.

How do you not qualify for the maximum?

One way is easy: you had too much income.

The second way is nonintuitive: the child was over age 16. A qualifying child means a child under the age of 17. Seems odd to me to exclude a high school senior, but there it is.

Let’s talk about the first non-qualification: income.

Let’s use a married couple with two qualifying children as our example.

The income limit for marrieds is $150,000. Past that point the stimulus check goes away by a nickel on the dollar. The maximum for two spouses is $2,400, so we can calculate this as follows:

                      $2,400 divided by .05 = $ 48,000

                      $150,000 plus 48,000 = $198,000

All right, the stimulus for marrieds burns-out at $198,000, right?



Because of the qualifying children.

Each of the kids adds another $10,000 to the phaseout range.

We have two kids. That means $20,000 added to the $198,000, totaling $218,000 before we burn-out of stimulus altogether.

Are we stilling phasing-out at a nickel on the dollar?

Let’s check.

           $218,000 – 150,000 = $68,000

           $3,400 divided by 68,000 equals $0.05.

Yep, nickel on the dollar.

You received the first stimulus check in April, 2020. Remember that tax returns were automatically extended until July 15, 2020 because of COVID. The odds were extremely good that the IRS was not basing its calculations on your 2019 return, because your 2019 return had not been prepared, much less filed. For most of us, the IRS was looking at our 2018 tax return.

Let’s continue.

You received your second stimulus check very late in December, 2020 or (more likely) January, 2021 – but the income phaseout range was the same.

What did change was the tax year the IRS was looking at. By December, 2020 you would have filed your 2019 tax return (let’s skip paper filings that may not have been processed by then, or we are going to drive ourselves crazy).

If your income went up from 2018 to 2019, you would have climbed the phaseout range. You might have received a first stimulus check, for example, but not qualified for a second one. It could have gone the other way, of course, if your income went down in 2019. 

Now your 2020 tax return lands on my desk and we need to settle-up on the stimulus.

How do we settle-up?

We run through the income phaseout range … again.

Using your 2020 tax return this time.

Did you notice we are doing the calculation three times using income from three different tax years?

Yep, it’s a pain.

Mind you, if you have modest income, I know that you received the maximum stimulus.

Conversely, if you made bank, I know that you received no stimulus.

Fall in between – or have wildly varying income – and I you need to tell me the amount of your stimulus checks.

Let’s go through a quick example, using our married couple with two qualifying children.

Their 2018 adjusted gross income was 201,000.

Here is the first stimulus:

phaseout start


phaseout end


add: 2 children




2018 AGI



First stimulus












They would have received $850.

Their 2019 adjusted gross income was $320,000.

Way over the income limit. There was no second stimulus.

Their 2020 tax return lands on my desk. Their adjusted gross income is $104,000.

Way below the income limit. Full stimulus.

Two qualifying kids. The maximum over two rounds of stimulus would be $3,400 plus $2,400 = $5,800.

They already received $850 per above.

That means a $4,950 credit on their 2020 individual tax return. I look like a hero.

But why? After all, their 2019 income was over $300 grand – way above the range for receiving any stimulus.

The quirky thing is that the stimulus is based on one’s 2020 tax return. Congress however wanted the money out as fast as possible. The stimulus had an income test, though, so the first option was to do the calculation on one’s 2019 tax return. When that option proved unworkable, the second option was to use 2018. It was messy but quick, and one would settle-up when filing the 2020 tax return.

Congress realized that settling-up could mean repaying some of the stimulus money. Since that somewhat negated the purpose of a stimulus, Congress decided that the gate would only swing one way. If one did not receive enough stimulus, then one could claim the shortfall on the 2020 return. If one was overpaid, well … one got to keep the money. 

It was a win:win.

Not so much for the accountant, though.

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