Q: What happens if my income changes and my premium subsidy is too big? Will I have to repay it?
A: Monthly premium subsidy amounts (ie, the advance premium tax credit – APTC – that’s paid to your insurer each month to offset the cost of your premium) are estimated based on prior-year income and projections for the year ahead, but the actual premium tax credit amount to which you’re entitled depends on your actual income in the year that you’re getting subsidized health insurance coverage.
If recipients end up earning more than anticipated, they could have to pay back some of the subsidy. This can catch people off guard, especially since the tax credits are paid directly to the insurance carriers, but if overpaid, they must be returned by the insureds themselves.
The issue of reconciling APTCs was explained in a 2013 IRS publication (see the final column on page 30383, continued on page 30384) which clearly explains that they do expect people to pay back subsidies that are in excess of the actual amount for which the household qualifies.
But the portion of an excess subsidy that must be repaid is capped for families with incomes up to 400 percent of federal poverty level (FPL). Details regarding the maximum amount that must be repaid, depending on income, are in the instructions for Form 8962, on Table 5 (Repayment Limitation).
There are some scenarios in which repayment caps do not apply:
- If a person projected an income below 400 percent of the poverty level (and received premium subsidies during the year based on that projection) but then ends up with an actual income above 400 percent of the poverty level (ie, not eligible for subsidies), the entire subsidy amount that was paid on their behalf has to be repaid to the IRS.
- If a person projected an income at or above 100 percent of the poverty level (and received premium subsidies) but then ends up with an income below the poverty level (ie, not eligible for subsidies), none of the subsidy has to be repaid. This is confirmed in the instructions for Form 8962, on page 8, in the section about Line 6 (Estimated household income at least 100% of the federal poverty line).
But there are new rules as of 2019 that make it less likely for people with income below the poverty level to qualify for premium subsidies based on income projections that are above the poverty level. This is explained in more detail here.
The IRS noted that they would “consider possible avenues of administrative relief” for tax filers who are struggling to pay back excess APTC, including such options as payment plans and the waiver of interest and penalties for people who must return subsidy over-payments. If you find yourself in a situation where you must pay back a significant amount of the premium subsidies you received during the prior year, contact the IRS to see if you can work out a favorable payment plan/interest arrangement.
GOP lawmakers considered various proposals in 2017 that would have eliminated the repayment limitations, essentially requiring anyone who received excess APTC to pay back the full amount, regardless of income. But those proposals were not enacted.
How many people have to repay subsidies?
For 2015 coverage, subsidies were reconciled when taxes were filed in early 2016. The IRS reported in early 2017 that about 3.3 million tax filers who received APTC in 2015 had to repay a portion of the subsidy when they filed their 2015 taxes; the average amount that had to be repaid was about $870, and 60 percent of people who had to pay back excess APTC still received a refund once the excess APTC was subtracted from their initial refund. [IRS data for premium tax credit reporting is available here; as of 2019, data had only been reported for the 2014 and 2015 tax years.]
But on the opposite end of the spectrum, about 2.4 million tax filers who were eligible for a premium tax credit ended up receiving all or some of it when they filed their return. These are people who either paid full price for their exchange plan in 2015 but ended up qualifying for a subsidy based on their 2015 income, or people who got an APTC that was less than the amount for which they ultimately qualified. The average amount of additional premium tax credit paid out on tax returns for 2015 was $670.
[The IRS noted that it was very uncommon for people to pay full price for their coverage and wait to claim their full refund on their return: 98 percent of the people who claimed a premium tax credit on their return had received at least some APTC during the year.]