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Stimulus checks, child tax credit: When you need to file an amended tax form -- or don't

The US has a slew of new stimulus bill tax credits and breaks coming in 2021 and 2022, and your taxes have everything to do with it. We'll tell you what you need to know.

If you made an error on your tax return, you may need to file an amended tax form.
Angela Lang/CNET

Your taxes, particularly your adjusted gross income, are tied tight to your $1,400 stimulus check, "plus-up payments" and the upcoming child tax credit for 2021, which is set to bring up to $3,600 per qualified child your way starting in July. (Calculate your child tax credit total here.). Since the IRS bases eligibility on your AGI, how does the agency know it's calculating everything correctly? Is there anything you need to do, especially if you have a new baby in 2021 or another additional dependent? What if you're a nonfiler?

For the most part, people who can take advantage of all the new tax breaks and credits (psst, here's one on cheaper health care) don't have to do much, even if they don't submit their 2020 taxes until the May 17 deadline. 

Although the IRS has cautioned against filing an amended tax form for changes such as the additional child tax credit funds and unemployment tax breaks, there are people who will still need to file. We'll break it down for you here. 

Amended tax forms: What they are, when you need to file one

An amended tax form -- formally called Form 1040-X, Amended US Individual Income Tax Return -- is used to correct tax forms 1040, 1040-A, 1040-EZ, 1040-NR or 1040-NR EZ. You would file an amended return to correct any errors in your return. 

For example, if there's a change in your filing status, income, deductions, credits or tax liability, you might want to file an amended form. 

If you owe the IRS additional taxes and the due date for filing the return has not passed -- in this case, you realize the error before May 17 -- you can avoid paying the IRS penalties and interest if you file Form 1040-X and pay the extra amount for 2020. An example could be if you forgot to claim income (like from Form W-2 or 1099), or you got a corrected information statement with different income or withholding amounts. 

Why don't I need to file to get the 2021 child tax credit, unemployment tax breaks and other benefits? 

When it comes to all of the new provisions in the new stimulus package -- including the expanded child tax credit, earned income tax credit and unemployment tax breaks -- taxpayers should not file an amended return. 

"The IRS strongly urges taxpayers to not file amended returns related to the new legislative provisions or take other unnecessary steps at this time," the IRS said March 12.

The IRS has begun making 2 million "plus-up" payments to people who need an adjustment to their third stimulus check total as a result of changes in their 2020 taxes, the agency announced April 2.

The IRS will provide additional information on the provisions that could affect your 2020 return, including the retroactive provision that makes the first $10,200 of 2020 unemployment benefits nontaxable. For those who haven't filed yet, the IRS will provide a worksheet for paper filers, and work with tax software companies so taxpayers can determine how to report their unemployment income on their return. Those who received unemployment benefits last year and already filed their 2020 return should not file an amended return unless the IRS issues additional guidance later. 

Payments should be automatic for those who file their 2020 tax returns by May 17, the new tax deadline. 


You don't need to file an amended tax form to take advantage of the new expanded Child Tax Credit.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Timing-wise, when would I need to file an amended tax form? 

Generally, to claim a refund, you have to file Form 1040-X within three years after the date you filed your original return, or within two years of the date you paid the tax -- whichever is later, according to the IRS. There are special rules, however, for refund claims related to net operating losses, foreign tax credits, bad debts and other issues. 

How do you file an amended tax form, if needed? 

You can submit Form 1040-X electronically using most tax software options on the market. Or you can submit a paper version. Find a full list of instructions from the IRS here. And note that if you make a change to your federal tax return, you may also need to change your state return, too. 

Is filing an amended tax form free? 

It depends. Some tax preparation software will let you amend your return for free, but some have charges. Make sure you read the fine print before you get started. If you use the IRS paperwork, you should only need to pay to print the form and for postage. 

How will the IRS process your amended return?

You can track the status of your Form 1040-X for this year and up to three years prior using the IRS's online tool, or by calling the IRS at 866-464-2050 (though the IRS advises you not to call). To track it, you'll need to enter your Social Security number, date of birth and ZIP or postal code. However, note that it will take up to three weeks after you mail it to show up in the system, and processing can take up to 16 weeks. 

For more, check out all of the changes to expect on your tax return this year, the new tax credits you may be able to claim and what we know so far about a potential fourth stimulus check