Overview of some of the major 2020 tax changes

April 09, 2021

By Pam Leibfried

Overview of some of the major 2020 tax changes

Young couple reviewing paperwork in front of a laptop

The year 2020 was chaotic and confusing for many of us, and that isn’t changing for the 2020 tax season. The CARES Act and American Rescue Plan both had major impact on the rules for filing taxes. Below is a brief rundown of some of the key changes that could impact your 2020 tax return. Please keep in mind, though, that although Alliant’s blog team follows personal finance news closely, we’re not CPAs, so the information below is not intended to be professional tax advice.

Extension of tax season

The IRS has delayed the 2020 federal tax filing deadline to May 17, 2021. And those of you who live in the states of Oklahoma, Texas and Louisiana have until June 15, 2021 to file because of winter storms.

You’ll need to check to see if your state extended its tax filing deadline to match the federal deadline. As of April 5, 2021, only 35 states had done so.

Above the line charitable deduction

The 2020 CARES Act added an “above the line” tax deduction for cash charitable contributions made in 2020. So just what does that IRS lingo mean? An above the line deduction is one you can claim on your main 1040 tax return without itemizing deductions.

Those of you who are like me and claim the standard deduction usually can’t deduct any of your charitable contributions. But this year, those of us who don’t itemize can still claim a deduction for the first $300 donated to a qualified charity. The donation had to be a monetary one, because donated goods or services don’t qualify. And you still need to have a receipt just like you do if you’re itemizing, but if you made a cash donation and can document it, just fill in the amount of your donation up to $300 on line 10b of your 1040 tax form.1

Reduction of taxes on unemployment income

The recently passed American Rescue Plan made the first $10,200 of your 2020 unemployment benefits non-taxable if your income is under $150,000.1 That’s an amazing plus for the millions of Americans who were jobless in 2020. But it raised questions for taxpayers with 2020 unemployment income who filed their taxes before the Rescue Plan became law on March 11, 2021. They had already paid income taxes on all of their unemployment earnings, so how could they get back those extra taxes they had paid?

At first, it looked like those of you who had 2020 unemployment income and had already filed your taxes would have to file an amended 2020 tax return, but last week there was some good news. There’s now a plan for the IRS to recalculate all affected returns, then issue refunds without you having to refile. 

“Lookback rule” for earners with reduced 2020 income

If you’re one of the millions of unlucky people whose 2020 earned income was lower than your 2019 earned income, you may be able to take advantage of new rules that allow you to “look back” to your 2019 earned income.1 When filing your 2020 taxes, you can use whichever of the two earned income amounts is best for you in calculating whether you qualify for the earned income tax credit (EITC) or the additional child tax credit (ACTC).

This rule change means that many taxpayers who have received the EITC or ACTC in past years but thought their lower earned income in 2020 would affect their eligibility may still receive the credit for their 2020 taxes.

The lookback rule uses your total earned income rather than the adjusted gross income (AGI) that the IRS uses for a lot of its other cutoffs and calculations. And the rules for calculating the EITC and ACTC are rather complicated. This may be the year you should consider using a tax professional instead of doing your taxes yourself if you’re not sure how to navigate this lookback rule.

Recovery Rebate Credit

If you didn’t receive one of the 2020 stimulus checks, you may be able to get that money now as a 2020 tax credit using the Recovery Rebate Credit.1

One scenario in which you may qualify for this credit is if your past earnings were above the income cutoff but your 2020 income was lower than the cutoff. Or maybe you had a baby in 2019 or 2020 and the IRS didn’t include any stimulus amount for that child because it used an older, pre-baby tax return to calculate your family’s stimulus amount for the 2020 stimulus checks.


1. This information is not intended to be a substitute for specific individualized tax or legal advice. Consult with your tax advisor for additional tax information.

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