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Who's getting these tax refunds?

Business office or store shop is closed, due to the effect of novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Chansom Pantip / Shutterstock

Millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the first nine months of the crisis (including some who might still be looking for work) were forced to file for unemployment benefits for the first time as businesses closed or cut back operations.

Normally, unemployment benefits are taxed like any other income. But the pandemic rescue package Biden signed into law in March excludes from 2020 taxes up to $10,200 in unemployment compensation per taxpayer, or $20,400 for couples filing jointly.

Those who filed their taxes ahead of the COVID relief law may have overpaid based on what they thought they owed. If your income was below $150,000 in 2020 and you claimed federal unemployment benefits last year, you may have a surprise refund coming.

Some 40 million Americans received unemployment payments in 2020, according to the Century Foundation. The average beneficiary got $14,000 — and $10,200 of that is now tax-free, leaving only $3,800 that's taxable.

So far, the IRS has identified 13 million taxpayers who may be eligible for the adjustment. If you've been hoping for a fourth stimulus check, one of these refunds might be the next best thing, for now.

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Surprise refunds will keep coming in waves

United States Treasury check with US currency and medical or surgical covid mask. Coronavirus economic impact stimulus payments or IRS tax refund.
Harun Ozmen / Shutterstock

The IRS said late last week that it just sent over 2.8 million refunds to Americans who paid too much tax on their unemployment.

If you qualify for money back, you’ll receive the refund either in your bank account or — if the government doesn't have your banking information — as a paper check. The funds also may be applied to any taxes or other federal debts you owe. The IRS is automatically issuing refunds, so there’s nothing you need to do to get it.

The deadline to file your 2020 taxes was extended until May 17. If you missed the deadline, you should file your taxes now — and remember that 2020 unemployment benefits of up to $10,200 are exempt from taxes. That will significantly reduce your tax liability this year.

Another wave of these tax refunds related to unemployment benefits will go out in mid-June, followed by more throughout the summer, the IRS says.

Keep in mind that even though the IRS has waived some federal taxes on your jobless benefits, your state may charge income tax on all unemployment payments you received.

What if you're not likely to get a refund?

Stressed Caucasian couple, They are trying to get money to pay off their credit card debt, Financial problems from the coronavirus or covid-19 outbreak.
Basicdog / Shutterstock

If you can’t wait for your refund — or you’re not eligible for one — there are steps you can take to give your finances a boost right now.

If you haven’t been driving much during the pandemic, some car insurers are offering their customers a break. If yours is being stingy, shop around for a better deal. And if you own a home, compare rates to find a lower price on your homeowners insurance.

If you’ve been supplementing your income with credit cards, the high-interest debt that comes with that plastic can be a real money-suck over time. A lower-interest debt consolidation loan can help you slash your interest costs and pay off your debts faster.

Look for ways to save on your grocery and online shopping bills. You can download a free browser extension that will automatically scour for better prices and coupons whenever you shop online.

Finally, if you don’t have much experience — or capital — to make money in the red-hot stock market, download a popular app that allows you to invest your "spare change" — and turn pennies into a diversified portfolio.

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Nancy Sarnoff Freelance Contributor

Nancy Sarnoff is a freelance contributor with Moneywise. Previously, she covered commercial and residential real estate for the Houston Chronicle where she also hosted Looped In, a podcast about the region’s growth, development and economy. Her work has been recognized by the National Association of Real Estate Editors and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.


The content provided on Moneywise is information to help users become financially literate. It is neither tax nor legal advice, is not intended to be relied upon as a forecast, research or investment advice, and is not a recommendation, offer or solicitation to buy or sell any securities or to adopt any investment strategy. Tax, investment and all other decisions should be made, as appropriate, only with guidance from a qualified professional. We make no representation or warranty of any kind, either express or implied, with respect to the data provided, the timeliness thereof, the results to be obtained by the use thereof or any other matter.