Stimulus bill unemployment benefits: How a new tax break could save you money

A final stimulus bill was signed into law on March 11 and includes less money for weekly unemployment benefits but a bigger tax benefit.

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Managing Editor Alison DeNisco Rayome joined CNET in 2019, and is a member of the Home team. She is a co-lead of the CNET Tips and We Do the Math series, and manages the Home Tips series, testing out new hacks for cooking, cleaning and tinkering with all of the gadgets and appliances in your house. Alison was previously an editor at TechRepublic.
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Alison DeNisco Rayome
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The new stimulus bill brings the total weekly unemployment benefit to $300, down from $400.

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The weekly bonus unemployment benefits are official now the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill was passed last week. Currently, the third stimulus checks of up to $1,400 per person are getting delivered into bank accounts via direct deposit -- you can now track your stimulus payment. For unemployment, the amount you can get each week has been lowered -- but the benefits include tax forgiveness and will be extended an additional month.

The original payment proposal would have sent $400 weekly and would have ended in August. However, the final bill offers people $300 a week until Sept. 6, plus an exemption of up to $10,200 for last year's unemployment payments. Under the new bill, your family may also get far more money this time, as well as tax breaks for parents and older adults.

One sticking point that could still cause complications is your 2020 tax return. Here's what we know so far about what the new stimulus bill means for those who receive unemployment, and how the numbers could work out for you. 

What are the current unemployment benefits in place?

The $300 federal unemployment checks from December's bill have officially expired and have been replaced by the new bill. With that, those who are on unemployment will continue to receive $300 extra each week and the benefits won't expire until Sept. 6.

Watch this: Stimulus check No. 3: What you need to know

How much unemployment money can I expect to get with the new stimulus bill? 

Now that President Joe Biden has signed the new bill into law, you can receive $300 a week through Sept. 6. This is down from the House's proposal of $400 a week. However, it does include a new tax break (more below). 

Will the unemployment money I receive during the pandemic eventually be taxed?

By law, unemployment payments are taxable and must be reported on your federal tax return, according to the IRS. This includes the special unemployment compensation authorized under the COVID-19 relief bills. These tax bills can range from several hundred to several thousand dollars -- a major burden for those who have been out of work, many of whom did not know the benefits would be taxed, The Washington Post reported

However, with the new stimulus bill, up to $10,200 in last year's unemployment payments can be exempt from taxes if your adjusted gross income (AGI) is less than $150,000, according to new exclusions from the IRS. If your AGI is higher, you can't exclude any unemployment compensation.

There are other implications, too. For one, it's retroactive: You could get the tax break for any unemployment collected in 2020, but not in 2021. For another, tax season has already started, and millions of people have filed returns already. If you collected unemployment and have already filed your taxes, the IRS is urging you not to file an amended return and will provide you will additional guidance. 

According to the White House, the addition of the tax break will provide more relief to the unemployed than the previous legislation did. However, according to tax experts, it really depends on your specific situation (more below). 


Typically, your unemployment benefits do get taxed. But the new stimulus bill changes that.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Will I get more money this time? Or less?

It depends. The tax break applies only to benefits received in 2020, whereas the reduced $300 weekly payments would be for 2021. Some people could get a tax cut under this plan because they got unemployment in 2020, but no longer do, so this deal would be a net gain for them, according to Janet Holtzblatt, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center

The same is also true in reverse, Holtzblatt said: People who did not receive unemployment in 2020 but who are currently unemployed would get smaller benefits under this current plan, and no gain from the tax break. 

Here's one calculation that shows how this could end up bringing you more money, according to Andrew Stettner, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation. Note that the additional unemployment insurance benefit will end Sept. 6 under the newest legislation. 

Others remain skeptical. "Allowing a deduction or exclusion for UI benefits for tax purposes would not help the lowest-income workers and it would not be as progressive as simply giving people more UI benefits," said Steve Wamhoff, director of federal tax policy at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. "Workers with the lowest incomes pay federal payroll taxes but they earn too little to owe any personal income taxes. So if you give them a deduction for their personal income taxes, that does not help them at all."

The people who benefit the most from the changes are people who have a good income and are unemployed for only part of the year, or someone who is unemployed but has a spouse who makes a decent salary, "because a tax deduction will provide the most benefit to people in the highest personal income tax brackets," Wamhoff said.

How can I file an amended tax return if I've already filed?

At this time, the IRS is urging taxpayers to not file an amended tax return if they've already completed their taxes. "The IRS will provide taxpayers with additional guidance on those provisions that could affect their 2020 tax return, including the retroactive provision that makes the first $10,200 of 2020 unemployment benefits nontaxable," the agency said in the statement March 12.

If you haven't already filed your 2020 taxes, you can claim the new unemployment tax break on your regular return. The IRS said it will provide a worksheet for paper filers and will work with tax software companies to update the current software.

(Here's more about why you should file your taxes as soon as possible, especially if you need to claim missing stimulus money -- even if you don't usually have to file taxes. We've also got information about what could happen if a third stimulus check arrives during tax season, and stimulus check tax season pitfalls to avoid.)

When can I expect to get my unemployment tax break? 

The IRS's website says to allow up to 16 weeks for processing your amended tax return. 

For more, here's when you could get your third stimulus check, and everything new this year when you file your tax return