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IRS Form 1040: What It Is and Which One to Use in 2018

Here's what you need to know about the mother of all tax forms.
Oct. 29, 2018
Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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What is the 1040?

IRS Form 1040 (U.S. Individual Income Tax Return) is the standard federal income tax form people use to report their income, claim tax deductions and credits, and calculate the amount of their tax refund or tax bill for the year.

There are three varieties of the form — the 1040EZ, the 1040A and the 1040 — that cover simple to complex tax situations. (We’ll explain below.)

How do I get a 1040?

  • If you’re filing your return using tax software, you answer questions and provide information that is translated into entries on your 1040. You should be able to electronically file your 1040 with the IRS and print or download a copy for your records.
  • If you prefer to fill out your return yourself, you can download 1040 forms from the IRS website.
  • If you are looking for your tax returns from past years, you can request a transcript from the IRS.

What’s the difference between the 1040 and 1040A and 1040EZ?

There are three kinds of IRS Form 1040, and they all have specific requirements. Here’s a quick breakdown:

  • IRS Form 1040EZ: You can’t claim any credits or deductions, with the exception of the Earned Income Tax Credit. It’s the briefest version of the 1040, and you can easily file your return for free with many online tax preparation services.
  • IRS Form 1040A: If you don’t plan to itemize your deductions, like for mortgage interest, then take a look at the 1040A. You might not be able to claim deductions, but you can claim certain tax credits.
  • IRS Form 1040: You can claim all the deductions and credits in the world, and anyone can use it, regardless of filing status. It’s just much longer than the other forms.

Which tax form should I use?

» When to use IRS Form 1040EZ

The IRS website says you should use the 1040EZ if:

  • You are filing as single or married filing jointly. (Here’s some help figuring out what tax filing status to choose.)
  • You have only wages, tips, salaries, unemployment compensation, Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, or taxable scholarships and fellowship grants, and your interest income was not over $1,500 last year.
  • You (and your spouse if filing a joint return) were under 65 on Jan. 1 of the following tax year and not blind at the end of the tax year.
  • You do not claim any dependents.
  • Your taxable income was less than $100,000.
  • Advance payments of the Premium Tax Credit were not made for you, your spouse, or any individual you enrolled in coverage for whom no one else is claiming the personal exemption.
  • All earned tips are included on your W-2 in boxes 5 and 7. (Here’s what you need to know about your W-2.)
  • You do not owe household employment taxes on wages paid to a household employee.
  • You are not a debtor in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case filed after Oct. 16, 2005.
  • You will not claim any adjustments to income (deduction for IRA contributions, a student loan interest deduction, etc.).
  • You will not claim any credits other than the Earned Income Tax Credit.
One of the biggest reasons NOT to use the 1040EZ is that the only tax break you’re eligible for is the earned income credit, which is for low-income taxpayers. If you think you may be eligible for any other tax breaks, use a different form. You don’t want to miss out on your well-deserved deductions and credits.

» When to use IRS Form 1040A

IRS Form 1040A offers more tax breaks than IRS Form 1040-EZ does, including child care, education and retirement savings. Still, deductions and credits are somewhat limited .Here are the IRS form 1040A requirements:

  • Your taxable income is less than $100,000.
  • You do not itemize deductions.
  • You claim credits only for child and dependent care expenses, the earned income credit, the credit for the elderly or the disabled, education credits, the child tax credit, the additional child tax credit and the retirement savings contribution credit.
  • Your only adjustments to income are the IRA deduction, the student loan interest deduction, the educator expenses deduction, and the tuition and fees deduction.
  • Your income comes entirely from: wages, salaries, tips, taxable scholarships and fellowship grants, interest, ordinary dividends, capital gain distributions, pensions, annuities, IRAs, unemployment compensation, taxable Social Security or railroad retirement benefits, Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
  • You did not have an alternative minimum tax adjustment on stock you acquired from the exercise of an incentive stock option.

» When to use IRS Form 1040 (“the long form”)

IRS Form 1040 is the most customizable form. And because you can itemize deductions, you do not suffer the same limitations as with the 1040EZ or the 1040A; you might qualify for much more. The IRS requires you to file a form 1040 if:

  • Your taxable income was $100,000 or more.
  • You have certain types of income, such as unreported tips; certain nontaxable distributions; self-employment earnings; or income received as a partner, a shareholder in an S corporation, or are a beneficiary of an estate or trust.
  • You itemize deductions or claim certain tax credits or adjustments to income, or
  • You owe household employment taxes.

What do I need to fill out my 1040?

You’ll need a lot of information to do your taxes, but here are a few basics that most people have to collect to get started:

  • Social Security Numbers for you, your spouse and any dependents
  • Dates of birth for you, your spouse and any dependents
  • Statements of wages earned (for example, your W-2 and 1099s)
  • Statements of interest or dividends from banks, brokerages
  • Proof of any tax credits or tax deductions
  • A copy of your past tax return
  • Your bank account number and routing number (for direct deposit of any refund)

Will the 1040 fit on a postcard?

Many have proposed ideas for shortening Form 1040 so that it fits on a postcard. Currently, the longest form of Form 1040 runs about two pages. However, for many line items on the 1040, determining what number to enter requires filling out other forms and schedules, many of which are several pages long and frequently come with their own instruction booklets.