16 Tax Tips for Single-Income Families

Stretch your single-income family tax return further this year.

In a number of situations, a family might have only one income. One parent might stay home to raise the children, or a single parent might be raising children alone due to divorce or widowhood. No matter the situation, it can be tough to make ends meet with only one income. When you consider the tax problems that could arise, it can be even more challenging.

To make things a bit easier this tax season, get ahead of potential tax problems and stop them before they start. Here are the biggest tax questions and single-income family tax tips so you can keep your tax burden as low as possible.

1. Can We Claim the Child and Dependent Care Credit?

When one spouse does not have income, you cannot claim the child and dependent care credit. This credit offsets child care expenses so that both parents can work or look for work. If one parent stays at home to care for the children, you cannot claim this credit. If you are a single parent with custody of your children, however, you can claim this credit if you have income.

To claim this credit, you must understand who qualifies as a dependent. In the words of the Internal Revenue Service, a qualifying individual for this credit is your dependent qualifying child who is under age 13 when the care is provided.

2. Can We Claim the Child Tax Credit?

Not many one-income family tax credits are available, but this is one that applies to all families with children. You can claim the child tax credit, which reduces your federal income tax by up to $2,000 for each qualifying child under age 17. This is an important credit because, unlike a deduction, which reduces the amount of your taxable income, a tax credit reduces the amount of the total tax bill. For example, if you owe $8,000 in income tax and you have two children, you can apply this credit of up to $2,000 per child to reduce the amount of tax you owe to possibly $4,000. In addition, up to $1,400 of this credit is refundable, which means that you can receive a refund for any excess credit.

The child tax credit begins to phase out at $200,000, or $400,000 in modified adjusted gross income for married couples filing jointly.

See: 6 Things Every Parent Should Know About the Child Tax Credit

3. Can We Use a Dependent Care FSA?

With a dependent care flexible spending account, or FSA, you can make pre-tax contributions, which lowers your taxable income. You can use the money to pay for qualified child care expenses. Unfortunately for the single-earner family, this money can only be used if the care was provided so that you could work. If one parent stays at home, you cannot take advantage of a dependent care FSA.

4. Can a Non-Income Earning Spouse Still Save for Retirement?

In most cases, you must have earned income in order to contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA. Many single-income families assume that the breadwinner is the only spouse who can contribute to one of these retirement accounts because the non-working spouse doesn’t have any earned income, according to Thomas Walsh, an Atlanta-based certified financial planner with Palisades Hudson Financial Group. The IRS makes an exception in this case, however.

“In order to promote retirement savings from both spouses in the home, the IRS created the spousal IRA,” Walsh said. A working spouse can contribute up to $5,500 a year — or $6,500 if you are over 50 — to an account for the benefit of the non-working spouse. For 2019, that increases to $6,000 — or $7,000 if you’re age 50 or older.  You have until the April tax-filing deadline to make a contribution for the previous year, and you can deduct the contribution from your taxable income on your federal tax return if you meet certain requirements.

Related: How to Use Your IRA as a Last-Minute Tax Deduction

5. How Can We Get the IRA Contribution Deduction?

If only one spouse has income, that income must be enough to support the deduction of your IRA contribution. That means that the combined contribution you make to your IRAs must not be more than the working spouse’s taxable income. The limit on contributions is for 2018 is $5,500 — $6,500 if you’re over 50 — so you can contribute up to $11,000 total split between to the two IRAs or $13,000 if you’re age 50 or older.

6. Can We Get the Saver’s Credit?

Low- to moderate-income taxpayers can take advantage of the saver’s credit, a tax credit for contributing to a retirement account, such as a 401k or IRA. The credit is worth up to $4,000 for married couples filing jointly.

To qualify, married couples filing jointly need an AGI of $41,001 – $63,000 to get a credit for 10 percent of their retirement contribution. To qualify for the maximum credit of 50 percent of your contribution, your joint AGI cannot be more than $38,000. If you file as head of household, you qualify for the maximum credit with an AGI of less than $28,500. For other filing statuses, including single, married filing separate and qualifying widow, you’ll get the full credit with an AGI under $19,000 and a partial credit with AGI up to $31,500.

IRA vs. 401k: Tips for Choosing the Best Retirement Plan

7. What’s the Best Way to File Our Tax Return?

For most married couples, a status of married filing jointly can result in the lowest tax payment. Even if only one spouse works, you should consider filing jointly. Filing separately allows you fewer deductions, and you cannot file as head of household if you are married. Moreover, single-income versus dual-income taxes will result in qualifying for different deductions. Consulting with a tax professional can help you choose the best filing status for your unique financial situation. 

8. Shouldn’t We Use Married Filing Separately?

Filing separately while you’re still married can create problems at tax time, according to David Du Val, chief customer advocacy officer at TaxAudit, a tax audit defense firm.

“Ninety-five percent of the time, you will get a bigger refund or owe less if you file jointly,” Du Val said. So if you’re separated or living apart, you still might want to file a joint return to get the tax benefits. Or you might qualify for head of household if your spouse didn’t live with you for the last six months of the year, you paid more than half the cost of keeping your home and your dependents lived with you for most of the year. 

9. How Are Alimony and Child Support Taxed?

If you’re divorced and get financial help from your ex-spouse, you need to be careful about the type of support you receive because it will make a difference at tax time. Moreover, dealing with taxes as a single parent can be tricky to navigate when you file. Child support payments are not considered taxable income — nor are they deductible by the person making the payments.  If you were divorced before Dec. 31, 2018, alimony payments are considered taxable income and can be deducted by the payer. However, if you were divorced after Dec. 31, 2018, alimony payments are not taxable or deductible as a result of the new tax law.

10. Who Claims the Children as Dependents If We Co-Parent?

Claiming dependents can be tricky if you’re divorced. Typically, you can treat a child as a qualifying dependent if that child lives with you more than half the year. You’re entitled to claim exemptions — which reduce your taxable income — for dependents. Plus, you qualify for other tax deductions and credits as the custodial parent.

If your ex-spouse earned more than you, he will be treated as the custodial parent and allowed to claim the child as a dependent, according to the IRS.

See More: Here’s Who Claims the Children on Taxes After Divorce

11. Can We Take the Earned-Income Tax Credit?

The earned-income tax credit can help lower the tax burden on low-income families, and families with one earner might fall into this category.

In order to qualify for the earned-income tax credit, your AGI cannot exceed a certain level. The level is based on your filing status and the number of qualifying children you have. If you are married filing jointly and you have two children, your AGI must be less than $51,492 to qualify.  In addition, your investment income cannot be more than $3,500 for 2018 tax returns.

12. Can I Get the Earned-Income Tax Credit If My Only Income Is Alimony?

To qualify for the earned-income tax credit, you must actually have earned income. So, if alimony or child support was your only income, you can’t qualify for the credit. Social Security and unemployment benefits also don’t count as earned income.

You can also be disqualified for the credit if you receive investment income that exceeds a certain amount. For 2017 returns, the amount is $3,450.

13. Does Everyone Need to Have Health Insurance?

The short answer is: No. Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, everyone was required to have minimum essential health coverage or be subject to a penalty that is assessed when you file your taxes. But beginning this year, the penalty is no longer in effect. At the same time, if you were uninsured in 2017 and in 2018, that penalty will be reflected in your taxes.

Related: 18 Medical Expenses You Can Deduct From Your Taxes

14. What Filing Status Should I Use If I Am Widowed?

If you become a widow, you need to make sure you don’t file using the wrong tax status. Otherwise, you could miss out on some tax breaks.

If your spouse dies during the year and you’re a single-income household at tax time, you can still use the married filing jointly status for the year in which your spouse died. That way, you can take advantage of the higher standard deduction for married couples and joint tax rates.

15. Can I Deduct Student Loan Interest After the Divorce?

Some of the tax benefits you got as a single-income household while you were married might disappear when you get divorced. For example, you can deduct up to $2,500 in student loan interest as long as your modified AGI is under $165,000 if you’re married filing jointly. Note that the deduction phases out beginning at a MAGI of $135,000.

If you are filing as single or head of household, however, the deduction starts to phase out at $65,000 to $80,000.

16. Are We Eligible for a Healthcare Subsidy?

Taxpayers whose income is 100 percent to 400 percent of the poverty level might qualify for the premium tax credit if they buy their health coverage through their state’s Affordable Care Act exchange, according to Grissinger.

Taxpayers run into problems with this credit because it’s figured at the beginning of the year based on the previous year’s income. If your income ends up being higher than the previous year’s income on which the credit is based, you could have to repay some of the credit you received when you filed your tax return, Grissinger said. Or if you and your spouse separate and use a married filing separately status, you typically can’t qualify for the credit. 

Unfortunately, you likely won’t be aware that you have to pay back some or all of the credit until you complete your tax return. “This new wrinkle has caused a lot of people to have [a] much smaller refund,” Grissinger said.

Don’t Miss: Everything You Need to Know About Tax Changes for Tax Year 2018

Filing income taxes can be particularly challenging for single-income families, but these single-income family tips for taxes can make filing easier and could help you avoid overpaying Uncle Sam.

More on Taxes

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Taylor Bell and Karen Doyle contributed to the reporting for this article.

About the Author

Cameron Huddleston is an award-winning journalist with more than 18 years of experience writing about personal finance. Her work has appeared in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, Business Insider, Chicago Tribune, Fortune, MSN, USA Today and many more print and online publications. She also is the author of Mom and Dad, We Need to Talk: How to Have Essential Conversations With Your Parents About Their Finances.

U.S. News & World Report named her one of the top personal finance experts to follow on Twitter, and AOL Daily Finance named her one of the top 20 personal finance influencers to follow on Twitter. She has appeared on CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and “Fox & Friends” and has been a guest on ABC News Radio, Wall Street Journal Radio, NPR, WTOP in Washington, D.C., KGO in San Francisco and other personal finance radio shows nationwide. She also has been interviewed and quoted as an expert in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Forbes, MarketWatch and more.

She has an MA in economic journalism from American University and BA in journalism and Russian studies from Washington & Lee University.