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IRS Form 1040: an Overview of What It Is and How It Works This Year

Here's what you need to know about Form 1040: the mother of all tax forms.
Oct. 16, 2019
Income Taxes, Personal Taxes, Taxes
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What is Form 1040?

Form 1040 is the standard federal income tax form people use to report their income to the IRS, claim tax deductions and credits, and calculate the amount of their tax refund or tax bill for the year. The formal name of the Form 1040 is “U.S. Individual Income Tax Return.” There used to be three varieties, the 1040EZ, the 1040A and the 1040, that covered simple to complex tax situations. Now there’s just Form 1040.

How Form 1040 works

Here’s what the form does.

Asks who you are

The top of Form 1040 gathers basic information about who you are, what tax filing status you’re going to use, and how many tax dependents you have.

Calculates taxable income

Next, Form 1040 gets busy tallying all of your income for the year and tallying all the deductions you’d like to claim. The objective is to calculate your taxable income, which is the amount of your income that’s subject to income tax. You (or your tax preparer or tax software) consult the federal tax brackets to do that math.

Calculates your tax liability

Near the bottom of Form 1040, you’ll write down how much income tax you’re responsible for. At that point, you get to subtract any tax credits that you might qualify for, as well as any taxes you’ve already paid via withholding taxes on your paychecks during the year.

Determines whether you’ve already paid some or all of your tax bill

Form 1040 also helps you calculate whether those tax credits and withholding taxes cover the bill. If they don’t, you may need to pay the rest when you file your Form 1040. If you’ve paid too much, you’ll get a tax refund. (Form 1040 even has a spot for you to tell the IRS where to send your money.)

>>MORE: Not sure if you have to file a tax return this year? Our guide can help.

How do I get Form 1040?

  • If you’re filing your return using tax software, you answer questions and provide information that is translated into entries on your Form 1040. You should be able to electronically file your Form 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 a Form 1040 from the IRS website.
  • If you are looking for your tax returns from past years, you can request a transcript from the IRS.

» MORE: Really get to know your money — how much you have and how you’re spending it.

Which Form 1040 schedules should I use?

Everybody uses the regular Form 1040, but there are also six schedules that you may or may not have to tack onto it, depending on your tax situation and whether you want to claim certain deductions and credits. Some people may not have to file any of these schedules.

Schedule 1: Additional income and adjustments to income

File this if you had any of these (click the links to learn more about any of these topics):

Schedule 2: Nonrefundable credits

File this if you owe any of these:

Schedule 3: Tax

File this if you want to claim any of these:

  • Foreign tax credit
  • Credit for child and dependent care expenses
  • Education credits
  • Retirement savings contributions credit (the Saver’s Credit)
  • Residential energy credit
  • General business credit

Schedule 4: Other taxes

File this if you owe any of these:

  • Self-employment tax
  • Additional taxes on IRAs, retirement plans, or other tax-favored accounts
  • Household employment taxes
  • Repayment of the first-time homebuyer credit
  • Additional Medicare tax
  • Net investment income tax

Schedule 5: Other payments and refundable credits

File this if you plan to:

  • Claim a refundable tax credit other than the earned income tax credit, American Opportunity credit, or additional child tax credit
  • Make a tax payment associated with getting a tax extension or excess Social Security withheld

Schedule 6: Foreign address and third party designee

File this if you:

  • Have an address outside the United States
  • Want to allow someone else to discuss your return with the IRS

What do I need to fill out Form 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)