Frequently Asked Questions about the Adoption Tax Credit
Below are some of the questions NACAC gets asked most frequently.
Updated March 2017
What is the maximum amount of the credit for 2016? At what income level does the credit begin to phase out?
For 2016 adoptions (claimed in early 2017), the maximum adoption credit and exclusion $13,460 per child. The credit will begin to phase out for families with modified adjusted gross incomes above $201,920 and the credit will go away completely for those with incomes around $241,920.
Since the credit is per child, the maximum you claim depends on the number of children you adopt. If you adopt two children in 2016, your maximum is $13,460 x 2 or $26,920. If you adopt four children, the maximum is $13,460 x 4 or $53,840. For purposes of the tax credit, there is no limitation on the number of children you can adopt.
Is the credit refundable for 2016 or future years?
No. The credit was only refundable only for tax years 2010 and 2011. A refundable credit is one that a person can receive regardless of their tax liability (see definition further below). It is treated as a payment so the parent can receive a refund larger than any taxes they have paid in during the year.
What does it mean that the credit is not refundable?
A non-refundable credit is one in which taxpayers receive a refund of federal income taxes, but only up to the amount of taxes they otherwise had due. In one year, taxpayers can use as much of the adoption tax credit as the full amount of their federal income tax liability, which is the amount on line 47 of the Form 1040 less certain other credits (such as the Child and Dependent Care Expenses). Even those who normally get a refund may still have tax liability; with the adoption tax credit the taxpayer could get a larger refund.
Families who have lower or moderate incomes typically have no tax liability and will not benefit from a non-refundable credit. We still encourage families who don’t think they have a tax liability to file for the credit (Form 8839), in case families’ tax liabilities change in future years (see more below under “carry forward”).
Here’s a very simplified example: A family has $5,000 in federal income taxes withheld from their paychecks during the year. When they do their taxes, they look at the tax tables and based on their adjusted gross income, their federal income taxes are $1,000 (this is their tax liability). If there were no adoption credit, they would be due a refund of $4,000. The family had qualified adoption expenses of $8,000. Because of the adoption credit, they would receive an additional $1,000 refund for that tax year (reducing their tax liability to zero), meaning that they get the full $5,000 that was withheld back rather than just the $4,000 they would have gotten without the non-refundable credit.
They can carry the remaining $7,000 ($8,000 in expenses minus the $1,000 they received) forward to future years and receive additional refunds depending on their tax liability in future years. (See more on the carry forward below.)
Is the credit a deduction?
No, the credit is not a deduction. The credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in the amount of federal taxes owed for the year.
What is tax liability?
It is the amount of federal income tax that you are responsible for for the year. If you did your taxes manually, it’s the amount you look up in the tax table based on your adjusted gross income.
You can get a refund and still have tax liability; a refund simply means you paid in more than you owe. It’s not really this simple, but the general idea is that if your employer withholds $5,000 in federal income tax during the year and you get a refund of $3,000, your tax liability was the $2,000 that the IRS keeps in federal income taxes.
Can I receive the credit if I adopted a child from another country?
Yes, once the adoption is legally finalized, either in the child’s home country or in the U.S., you can claim your qualified adoption expenses, up to the maximum.
Is the tax credit for all adoptions or just special needs? Can I receive the credit if I adopted a healthy child? What kinds of adoptions benefit from the tax credit?
The adoption credit is for all adoptions other than stepparent adoptions (international, domestic private, and public foster care). See below for more information about how special needs adoptions are different.
How much of the credit can a parent claim? (Please note: claim is not the same as use — you can claim credit and never be able to use it, depending on your tax situation.)
Parents who adopted a child who has been determined to be special needs by the state or county child welfare agency (see next question for special needs definition) can claim the maximum credit regardless of whether they have qualified adoption expenses at all.
For other adoptions (other than stepparent adoptions, which are not eligible for the credit at all), parents can claim the credit for qualified adoption expenses up to the maximum. So if a family has $5,000 in expenses for a private, non-special needs adoption, they can claim only that $5,000 not the maximum. Families who have expenses above the maximum can only claim the maximum. So if a family has expenses of $30,000 for a 2015 adoption of two children, they will be able to claim only $26,400 ($13,400 per child), as long as their income is below the phase-out limits listed above.
In all cases, how much a parent will actually receive in a given year depends on their tax liability (see above).
What constitutes a special needs adoption?
Special needs really means hard to place, not that the child has a disability or medical condition. Basically a child must be a child who receives adoption subsidy/assistance (or reimbursement of nonrecurring adoption expenses or Medicaid through the adoption assistance program). The IRS instructions for Form 8839 say, “A child is a child with special needs if all three of the following statements are true.
The child was a citizen or resident of the United States or its possessions at the time the adoption effort began (US child).
A state (including the District of Columbia) has determined that the child cannot or should not be returned to his or her parents' home.
The state has determined that the child will not be adopted unless assistance is provided to the adoptive parents. [emphasis added by NACAC] Factors used by states to make this determination include:
The child's ethnic background and age,
Whether the child is a member of a minority or sibling group, and
Whether the child has a medical condition or a physical, mental, or emotional handicap.”
Again, many children who have disabilities or medical conditions do not meet the statutory definition of special needs. These parents will need to have and document qualified adoption expenses to claim the credit.
If my child doesn’t receive a monthly adoption assistance benefit is my child considered special needs?
You do not need to receive a monthly payment to qualify as special needs as long as you receive either reimbursement of non-recurring adoption expenses or Medicaid through the adoption assistance program. The child must receive benefits through the adoption assistance program.
Can the credit be carried forward if I don’t have enough tax liability the first year I claim it?
Yes, taxpayers have a total of six years to use the credit—the year they first are eligible to claim it and the next five years.
We encourage adoptive families who file taxes to include a Form 8839 to establish the adoption tax credit even if they do not believe they will be able to use any of the credit this year. Families may have tax liability in future years and establishing the credit would save them from having to go back and amend taxes once they were able to benefit.
Does a parent who adopted a child who have been determined to have special needs still have to have tax liability?
Yes, the only difference for special needs adoptions is that parents can claim the maximum credit regardless of whether they had any adoption expenses at all. The credit is still non-refundable for special needs adoptions.
I already claimed the credit for an earlier adoption and received the refund. Do I get to claim it again?
Not unless you adopted again. The credit is a one-time credit per child. If you adopt again, you are definitely eligible to claim another adoption tax credit for that child (or children).
If you never filed for the credit, but adopted in 2012 or more recently, you may still be able to benefit depending on your personal tax situation. See below for more information.
When can I claim the credit?
If it is an international or special needs adoption (without qualified adoption expenses), you apply for the credit in the tax year in which you finalize the adoption. For domestic, non-special needs adoptions, you must claim any expenses either the year you finalize or, for non-finalized adoptions, the year after you spent the money. So if you finalized an adoption in 2016, but had expenses from 2013 to 2016, you can claim the 2013 expenses with your year 2014 tax return (typically filed in early 2015), the 2014 expenses with your 2015 tax return, and the 2015 and 2016 expenses with your 2016 tax return (filed in early 2017). The maximum credit will be based on the year of finalization.
You cannot claim the credit for a non-finalized international adoption.
If you had a domestic adoption that did not finalize you can claim expenses but only the year after you spent them (2016 expenses are claimed with the 2017 tax return filed in early 2018). For failed U.S. special needs adoptions, you can only claim any expenses you had (not the maximum credit), and again you would have to wait until the tax year after you had the expenses.
I got a placement in 2016 but haven’t finalized yet (or finalized in early 2017). When can I claim it?
For private domestic adoptions, expenses incurred in 2015 for a non-finalized adoption can be claimed with 2016 taxes. Expenses from 2016 cannot be claimed until 2017 taxes are filed. If the adoption finalizes in 2017, parents can claim 2016 and 2017 expenses with their 2017 taxes filed early next year.
How do I apply?
You need to fill out a Form 8839 for the year of the adoption and include it with your Form 1040.
Can I take the credit every year?
No, it is a one-time credit per child. If you adopted in 2012 or later, you claim the credit in the year of finalization (or prior to finalization of domestic adoption with qualified adoption expenses). You then use the credit that year and in later years until it is all used up or a total of six years have passed.
The one exception is if you have expenses for a non-finalized U.S. adoption, you claim those the year after you had the expenses. Then if you finalize the next year, you can claim the remainder of the credit in that subsequent year.
Is there a limit to the number of credits I can claim if I adopted multiple children?
No. You can claim it for any adopted children (other than a step-child). You just use multiple copies of the form.
What documentation is required?
No documentation is required for 2016 tax year (since the credit is not refundable).
What are qualified adoption expenses?
The IRS writes:
“Qualified adoption expenses are reasonable and necessary expenses directly related to, and for the principal purpose of, the legal adoption of an eligible child.
Qualified adoption expenses include:
- Adoption fees,
- Attorney fees,
- Court costs,
- Travel expenses (including meals and lodging) while away from home, and
- Re-adoption expenses relating to the adoption of a foreign child.
Qualified adoption expenses do not include expenses:
- For which you received funds under any state, local, or federal program,
- That violate state or federal law,
- For carrying out a surrogate parenting arrangement,
- For the adoption of your spouse's child,
- Paid or reimbursed by your employer or any other person or organization, or
Allowed as a credit or deduction under any other provision of federal income tax law.”
Can I claim the credit for a failed adoption?
Yes if it is a U.S. adoption and you had qualified adoption expenses. It is treated as a non-finalized adoption, and you must wait one year after you incur the expenses. So, if you had expenses for an adoption in 2015 but the adoption has failed, you claim them with your 2016 taxes, typically filed in early 2017.
I had a failed U.S. adoption of a child but later adopted a child successfully. Can I claim the credit twice?
No. The instructions for Form 8839 state:
Attempted Adoptions of U.S. Children
If you made more than one attempt to adopt one eligible U.S. child, combine the amounts you spent and complete only the “Child 1” line. Do not report the additional attempt(s) on the “Child 2” or “Child 3” line. Complete the “Child 2” or “Child 3” lines only if you adopted or tried to adopt two or three eligible children.
You planned to adopt one U.S. child. You had one unsuccessful attempt to adopt a child and later successfully adopted a different child. Complete only the “Child 1” line because you made more than one attempt to adopt one eligible child.
The facts are the same as in Example 1 except that both attempts are unsuccessful and no adoption is ever finalized. Enter $18,000 ($10,000 + $8,000) on the “Child 1” line because you made more than one attempt to adopt one eligible child.
You planned to adopt one U.S. child. You paid $9,000 in qualified adoption expenses in an unsuccessful attempt to adopt a child. You later successfully adopted twins, after paying an additional $24,000 in qualified adoption expenses ($12,000 per child). Enter $21,000 ($9,000 + $12,000) on the “Child 1” line because you made more than one attempt to adopt one eligible child. Enter $12,000 on the “Child 2” line because you made a successful attempt to adopt a second eligible child.
I had a failed international adoption. Can I claim the credit?
No. To claim any credit for an international adoption, the adoption must be finalized.
I had a failed adoption of a child with special needs. Can I claim the maximum credit without expenses?
No. If you had expenses related to the adoption process, you could claim them in the tax year after you incurred the expenses.
If I’m claiming the credit for a non-finalized or failed US adoption, what do I use for the child's indentifying number?
If you cannot give complete information about an eligible child you tried to adopt the year before because the adoption was either unsuccessful or was not final by the end of the year, complete the entries that you can on line 1. Enter "See Attached Statement" in the columns for which you do not have the information. Then attach a statement to your return, providing the name and address of any agency or agent (such as an attorney) that assisted in the attempted adoption. Be sure to write your name and social security number on the statement.
I adopted a child when the child was younger than 18 but I have been turned down because my child is now 18 or older. Is this right?
This is incorrect. Send us the letter that says this (contact above) and we will send it to the IRS to straighten out.