It could be a financial lifeline just in time for the holidays — a child tax credit payment to cover food, rent or presents for children in households struggling to make ends meet.

The American Rescue Plan expanded the credit for the 2021 tax year to a total of $3,600 for children 5 and younger and $3,000 for those ages 6 to 17. In July, parents of children 5 and younger began receiving up to $300 a month per child. For parents of children ages 6 to 17, it’s up to $250 per child. The final direct deposit is scheduled for Dec. 15.

The payments are being sent in advance, enabling households to claim the credit early instead of waiting until they file their 2021 tax returns. People can get these benefits even if they don’t work or receive no income.

For those whose income has been too low to file a return, be sure to use the online sign-up tool, linked from IRS.gov. This link redirects to whitehouse.gov. The administration collaborated with a nonprofit, Code for America, which created a non-filer sign-up tool that can be used on a mobile phone and is also available in Spanish.

Nov. 15 is the deadline — the last chance — for families to use the non-filer tool. Because the advance payments are stopping at the end of the year, any family signing up now will get a single lump-sum payment in December — up to $1,800 for each child in the younger category and up to $1,500 for each child in the older one.

Like any other eligible family that files a return, these families will need to file a 2021 return next year to claim the remaining portion of the child tax credit.

Eligible families that filed a 2019 or 2020 income tax return were supposed to have received the money without any action on their part. With the Oct. 15 payment, the Internal Revenue Service has sent out payments to about 36 million families, totaling about $61 billion. And reports have indicated that the payments have helped reduce child poverty.

But some glitches and delayed return processing prevented payments to some families. And it’s possible that millions of eligible families missed out on the advance payments, mostly because they earn too little to be required to file a tax return.

The task to find eligible families that don’t file a federal tax return and that have not claimed the advance child tax credit payments is daunting.

A report from the Government Accountability Office was critical of efforts by the Treasury and the IRS to identify people at risk of not receiving the child tax credit payments.

The GAO recommended that the agencies estimate the number of individuals, including non-filers, who are eligible for the advance payments, measure the 2021 participation rate based on that estimate, and then use this information to develop targeted outreach and communications efforts for the 2022 filing season.

In response to the GAO report, the IRS said the agency plans to meet with Census Bureau officials and pointed out that it has sponsored events across the country to help non-filers access the online tools. There’s an information page at irs.gov/childtaxcredit2021.

Despite these efforts, the publicity about the advance payments has been poorly communicated, with key information tucked away in agency news releases or densely, technically written FAQs.

For instance, the IRS announced on Oct. 29 a feature that allows families already receiving monthly child tax credit payments to update their income information on the Child Tax Credit Update Portal.

“In some cases, families who are currently receiving monthly payments that are below the maximum may qualify to have their payments increased. This could happen if, for example, they experienced job loss during 2021,” the IRS said.

Even this late in the payment process cycle, the extra money could help. Except families had until midnight Nov. 1 to make changes so that it could be reflected in the Nov. 15 payment.

Really, what average parent would be checking the IRS website over the Halloween weekend?

If a family was unable to make a change by the Nov. 1 deadline, it still has a chance to enter an update for the December payment, but that has to be done by Nov. 29.

The IRS has done a lot to get money into the hands of millions of families while dealing with a horrendous tax season complicated by the pandemic. Still, the glitches, lackluster communication efforts and unreasonable deadlines are frustrating folks who are short on patience because they are trying to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.