Why stimulus checks won't be taxed, but unemployment benefits will be

Billions of federal coronavirus relief dollars are flowing directly into Americans' pockets, but will they have to send some of that money back to Uncle Sam come tax time? By Tami Luhby, CNN

(CNN) -- Billions of federal coronavirus relief dollars are flowing directly into Americans' pockets, but will they have to send some of that money back to Uncle Sam come tax time?

The good news: Your stimulus payment is all yours!

The bad news: If you're out of work, you will owe federal -- and possibly state and local -- taxes on any unemployment benefits you collect, including the temporary $600 weekly boost approved by Congress as part of its economic rescue package.

And because unemployment benefits count as income, they may also disqualify you from getting food stamps or federal subsides for health insurance policies bought on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Neither the stimulus checks nor the extra federal jobless payments, however, will affect your eligibility for Medicaid.

Here are the details:

Stimulus payments are tax free

The Internal Revenue Service has sent out nearly 130 million stimulus payments, and more are on the way.

Americans earning up to $99,000 a year can receive up payments of up to $1,200, while married couples without children get up to $2,400 if they make no more than $198,000. For families, the threshold depends on how many children they have. Your income is typically based on your 2018 or 2019 tax return.

This money is tax-free and won't affect any refunds you might be owed, said Howard Gleckman, senior fellow at the Tax Policy Center.

What's more: You won't have to return any funds if you received a payment but wind up earning more than the threshold in 2020.

And if you didn't qualify based on your prior earnings but end up making below the threshold this year, you'll receive your stimulus payment when you file your 2020 tax return.

Also, stimulus payments will not count as income for government assistance programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps, though the money could be considered part of your assets if you save it for more than 12 months, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of income and work supports for the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group.

Unemployment benefits are subject to tax

Roughly 1 in 5 American workers have filed for initial jobless benefits since mid-March, when states started shuttering nonessential businesses and mandating that residents stay home.

To help those losing their jobs, Congress hiked weekly payments by $600 through the end of July, on top of state benefits, and expanded the unemployment program to more Americans, including the self-employed, independent contractors, gig workers and certain people affected by the coronavirus.

All the federal and state unemployment payments you receive are subject to federal income tax and potentially state and local income taxes, depending on where you live. The extra $600 could provide nearly $10,000 in income if you receive it for the full four months -- and that's before you factor in state benefits.

(Some states, such as Florida, don't have income taxes, while others, including California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, don't levy state taxes on unemployment benefits.)

You can opt to withhold taxes from your weekly benefit through your state unemployment agency, pay estimated taxes quarterly or wait until you file your return. If requested, states typically withhold 10% for federal taxes and an additional amount to cover their levy, if applicable.

You'll also get a Form 1099-G showing the amount of unemployment compensation you received for the year and any income tax withheld.

When you decide to pay the taxes owed depends on your financial situation. Some experts suggest you have the money taken out weekly so you aren't stuck with a big tax bill later, while others say it might be better to get the full benefit now and pay the taxes later when you may have a job and more income.

When it comes to government assistance, Congress mandated that the extra $600 payment will not disqualify you and your family from Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program.

However, the boost could leave you ineligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are formally known, particularly if you have a smaller family, said Lower-Basch. Also, some people already receiving food stamps may get bumped out of the program temporarily.

Unemployment compensation also counts as income for the Affordable Care Act's federal subsidies that help lower- and moderate-income people pay their premiums and out-of-pocket costs.

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