There are nearly 1,000 federal tax forms available from the IRS, but odds are you don’t need to care about most of them. Here is a handful of forms you should know about as you prepare your tax return for the April 17 filing deadline this year.
Before you file
These are forms that may be sent to you with information you’ll need for your return.
Typically, when you start a job you instruct your employer how much tax to withhold from each paycheck. The W-2 is a form your employer sends in January or February that shows how much you earned, what you contributed to your company’s retirement plan and the amount of taxes withheld on your behalf. A copy goes to the IRS, so be sure to report this information accurately.
Homeowners with a mortgage will get one of these in the mail showing the interest paid on a home loan during the year. That mortgage interest is generally deductible. Students might get a 1098-T, which reports tuition payments, or a 1098-E, which reports the interest paid on student loans. Student loan interest and tuition payments may also be deductible.
This tax form comes in many varieties, but they’re all records of miscellaneous income (i.e., income received from a source other than an employer). Whoever sent this form also sent the IRS a copy, so don’t forget to report it on your return.
The most common of these are the 1099-DIV (dividends and distributions from investments), 1099-INT (interest earned on investments), 1099-OID (generally for certain bond investors) and 1099-MISC (money earned for freelance work and really most everything else not derived from investments).
Time to file
These are forms you might need to fill out as part of your tax return.
This is where you record income and deductions and calculate your tax bill. There are rules about which of the three types of 1040 you can use. Here’s a quick breakdown:
- Form 1040EZ. A one-pager primarily for people younger than 65 who have simple tax situations and can’t claim any credits or deductions, with the exception of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Your taxable income has to be under $100,000.
- Form 1040A. Also for fairly simple tax situations, with a twist. Although you can’t itemize, you can claim certain popular tax credits, and you can deduct student loan interest, IRA contributions and a handful of other adjustments. Taxable income has to be under $100,000.
- Form 1040. Anyone can use it. You can itemize and claim all allowable deductions and credits.
Schedule A is for itemizing your deductions — charitable contributions, mortgage interest and property taxes, state taxes, medical expenses, or many others. It can be one of your most valuable forms because it’s all about reducing your tax bill.
This form tallies all the taxable interest and dividends over $1,500 that you received during the year. Note the word “taxable”; this is one reason tax-advantaged accounts such as IRAs and 401(k)s can be so valuable — they don’t raise taxable income.
Schedule C (or the simpler Schedule C-EZ) is what you use to report the profits and losses from freelancing, side gigs or contract work. It’s also where you can deduct expenses related to the growth and development of a business, such as advertising, home office expenses or office supplies. You might be able to use the shorter C-EZ if expenses are below $5,000, and you have no employees, no inventory and no depreciation or deductions for the cost of your home.
If you trade stocks, bonds or other assets, Schedule D is where you tally capital gains and losses for the year. Report both kinds: Up to $3,000 of your net losses could be deductible ($1,500 for those married and filing separately). You’ll likely need information from 1099s to get it done.
These are forms that might help you get out of a jam with the IRS.
If you filed your return, then realized you made an error, the 1040X could save you. You may need to include copies of other tax forms when you file it (go here to learn more about amending your return). You’ll have to file this form on paper and mail it the old-fashioned way, so be sure to keep a copy of all supporting documents.
File it with the IRS by the April deadline — you can do this one online — and you’ll buy yourself an extension until October. You have to make a good estimate of what you owe the IRS and send in some or all of that amount along with the extension request. If the estimated payment ends up being less than what you actually owe, you may need to pay interest or penalties on the difference. And don’t miss your extended deadline: The IRS can hit you with a late-filing penalty of 5% of the amount due for every month or partial month your return is late (up to a max of 25%).