8 Popular Tax Credits

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A tax credit is a benefit that directly reduces your income tax. A tax deduction, on the other hand, reduces your taxable income.

Some tax credits are meant to encourage certain behavior. For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit encourages lower income taxpayers to earn income. Other credits offset certain expenses or overpaid taxes.

These are some of the most popular tax credits available in 2013:

Adoption Tax Credit

If you pay adoption expenses, or if you finalize an adoption for which you paid adoption expenses in a prior year, you may be able to take a credit. This is a dollar-for-dollar credit that reimburses you up to $12,970. This credit is not refundable, meaning you cannot take the full amount if your tax is less than your available credit. You can carry forward any remaining amount for up to five years.

Child and Dependent Care Credit

The expenses you pay for someone to care for your child under age 13 while you work may qualify you for a sizeable credit. You can also take the credit if you have a dependent age 13 or older that requires care, or if you pay someone to care for your disabled spouse. Depending on your income level, you may qualify for a credit of 20% to 35% of the amount you pay for care.

Your maximum credit if you have one child or other qualified individual is $1,050 in 2013. If you have two or more children or qualified individuals, your maximum Child and Dependent Care Credit is $2,100.

You, and your spouse if you are married, generally must both have earned income to take this credit. There are exceptions if one of you works and the other is a student, is looking for work, or is disabled.

Child Tax Credit

You may qualify for a credit of up to $1,000 for each of your children under age 17 at the end of the year. If you cannot take your full Child Tax Credit because you owe little or no income tax, you may be able to take the Additional Child Tax Credit. This credit is refundable, meaning you may be able take the full credit even if the amount of tax you owe is less than your available credit. This credit is limited at higher income levels.

Saver's Credit (also known as Retirement Savings Contributions Credit)

If you are in the lower or middle-income levels and you contribute to a retirement plan, you may get a credit equal to part of your retirement plan contribution. This is in addition to any other tax benefit, such as the deduction for contributing to your traditional Individual Retirement Arrangement (IRA). You must be at least age 18 and not a student to take this credit. In addition, you cannot take the credit if someone else can claim you as a dependent on his or her return.

The maximum Saver's Credit in 2013 is $1,000 ($2,000 if you are married filing jointly).

American Opportunity Tax Credit (formerly the Hope Credit)

This credit, now good for all four years of undergraduate studies, pays for up to the first $2,000 you spend on tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment by giving you a credit for up to 100% of that amount. If you qualify, it also gives you 25% of the next $2,000 back as a credit, for a total credit of up to $2,500. The credit can be for you, your spouse, or your dependent. The student must be enrolled at least half time and not have been convicted of a felony possessing or distributing a controlled substance for you to take this credit. The credit phases out at higher income levels. This credit is refundable for up to 40% of the credit or $1,000, whichever is greater.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit provides a credit equal to 20% of your tuition and certain related expenses up to $10,000. You may receive a credit of up to $2,000 per student. This credit also phases out at higher income levels. You can take this credit for any number of years for each student, regardless of the student's workload or whether the student is working toward a degree.

Earned Income Tax Credit

This is a credit for low-income people who work. The credit is refundable, which means you may receive more Earned Income Tax Credit as a refund than you paid or had withheld in taxes. Depending on your income level, filing status, and number of children, you may receive as much as $5,891 back for this credit.

Foreign Tax Credit

This credit is a refund to reduce a double tax burden you would otherwise have if you pay tax to a foreign country on part of your income. Many U.S. residents pay foreign tax, and therefore qualify for this credit, if they invest in mutual funds that pay foreign taxes.