Getting Started: A Quick Tax Guide for Everyone
April’s coming, and those same difficult questions start cropping up – How should I do my taxes this year? Should I hire somebody to do them for me? Or try to file them myself? Do I go online, or just mail them in? What forms and information should I have on-hand before I start? The answers are different for every person, but a little basic knowledge can prepare you to make the best decisions, get your taxes filed, and get on with life.
How to file taxes: choosing your filing method
As the April deadline approaches, the first decision to make is, how will you file taxes? Taxes can get done using a number of different methods, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. Here’s a breakdown of the principal methods of filing, as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each.
Online tax preparation services
Packaged tax software
A tax preparation checklist: forms & other materials
Once you’ve picked your method of filing, the next step is to gather the information and forms that will be relevant to your taxes. Below is a short-list of the most common materials you’ll need to have on-hand, and where to find them. If you start doing your taxes, and you need something that’s not covered on the list below, consult with a tax advisor or take a look at the IRS Forms and Publications page.
W2 for all income sources – If you worked for a company, you need a W2 form from your employer. Employers will often send you a W2 automatically. Some employers may give you instructions to retrieve it online instead of mailing it. If you don’t get your W2, contact your company’s human resources department.
SSA-1099 for social security benefits – If you collected social security during the year, you should receive this form automatically. Copies are obtainable at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps6z/i1099/main.html.
1099-G for other government payments – You’ll receive this form from the government if you took in unemployment benefits or an income tax refund.
1099-INT, 1099-DIV, 1099-B and/or 1099-R for all money invested – By late February, you should receive any of these various forms for interest, dividends, retirement plan distributions, etc. from banks, brokers, or fund companies where you had a bank account or money invested during the tax year.
1098 – From your lender if you have a home mortgage.
Social Security numbers – You’ll need this for you, your spouse, your children, and any other dependents. Every taxpayer needs this. For a new or replacement social security card, visit http://www.ssa.gov/ssnumber.
Prior year adjusted gross income (AGI) – This number is requested by the IRS as a key identifying piece of information. The AGI can be found on your prior year’s 1040 forms (1040, 1040A or 1040-EZ depending on how you filed). If you don’t have your tax return from last year, you can substitute your electronic filing PIN.
Electronic Filing PIN – If you filed electronically last year, you have one of these. If you don’t remember your PIN, you can use the IRS Pin Retrieval page.
Record of income and deductions – If you have income or deductions that don’t appear in the forms listed above, gather records such as bank deposits and receipts for charitable contributions.
Your bank routing number – If you want to direct deposit a refund, you’ll need this number. If you’re depositing to a checking account, the first 9 numbers from the left at the bottom of your checks is your bank’s routing number. Learn more
Your bank account number – Check your bank or other financial institution’s website to obtain your account number. If you’re a Wells Fargo customer, you can find your account number directly to the right of the routing number on your check.
This is the first tax-specific bit of information the IRS will want to know. They use your filing status to determine the amount of your standard deduction and the tax you owe. It also helps determine which deductions and credits you qualify for.
There are five filing statuses to choose from:
Single – Your filing status is single if, on the last day of your tax year, you are unmarried or legally separated from your spouse, and you don’t qualify as a head of household or a widow(er) with dependent child (see below). Federal tax law now recognizes same-sex marriages that were conducted in jurisdictions where such marriages are legal.
Married Filing Jointly – You can choose Married Filing Jointly if you’re married and both you and your spouse agree to file a joint return. Both of you must include all of your income, exemptions, and deductions on your joint return.
Married Filing Separately – If you’re married, you can also choose Married Filing Separately. Since this filing status has the highest tax rate, you and your spouse will generally pay more combined tax by filing separately than by filing jointly. If you live apart from your spouse, and meet certain other criteria, you may be able to lower your taxes by filing as Head of Household, even if you aren’t divorced or legally separated.
Head of Household – To file with this status:
You must be unmarried on the last day of the tax year, or qualify to be treated as unmarried by living apart from your spouse for the last six months of the year;
You must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for the year; and
You must have a qualifying person living with you in the home for more than half the year.
There are exceptions and special cases to this status; we highly recommend consulting a tax advisor before choosing it. If you qualify, your tax rate will be lower than rates for Single or Married Filing Separately.
Qualifying Widow(er) with Dependent Child – Only applicable for two years after your spouse dies. Your tax rate will be the same as if you filed a joint return. To qualify:
You must have been eligible to file a joint return with your spouse the year he/she died;
You can’t have remarried before the end of the year;
You must be able to claim a child as an exemption; and
You must have paid more than half the cost of keeping up the main home for your child the entire year.
Once you’ve chosen your method of tax preparation, gathered all the appropriate forms together, and considered your filing status, consult the While Filing section of our Tax Center. It has detailed information on how to report some key information as you file, such as your income, deductions, investments and homeownership.