Your Guide to Tax Forms

Your Guide to Tax Forms

If LearnVest ran the IRS, we would name forms things like "Work" form, "Self-Employed" form and "Oops, You Made a Mistake" form.

But of course, we don't run the government, and instead we are directed to a jumble of letters and numbers. C'est la taxes.

Hey, we do what we can. So we'll walk you through the most commonly used tax forms, when you need them and where to get them.

There are a lot, so we've ordered them by First, Second and Finish. Skim the titles to find the ones for you. And if you need a form that is not linked here (because, honestly, there are hundreds) you can most certainly find it by using the IRS's search function.

Let's get started, shall we?

First: The Basics

Before tax time even begins, you've already filled out certain forms. Others are coming in the mail. You won't need to download either for the purpose of filing your return this April, but if you familiarize yourself with them, your life will be much easier, we promise.

Fill It Out at Work: W-4

This is the form you fill out when you start a new job or have a major life event like getting married, buying a house or having a baby. It tells your employer how much to withhold from your paycheck for taxes. You should be familiar with this form not because you need it at tax time, but because if you decide to change your withholding or how many dependents you have, you will need to ask your HR department for a W-4 to fill out.

Checklist: I Want to Fill Out My W-4 Withholding Form

Fill It Out as a Freelancer: W-9

If you’re self-employed, clients or companies that hire you as a contractor might ask you to fill this out when you take the job. It's a simple document that only includes your name, address, Social Security Number and maybe your tax identification number if, instead of working as an individual, you are part of a company that's been contracted. You would also use this form if your tax ID doesn't match the IRS's records or if you are subject to withholding, which means that the IRS has informed you that you owe taxes and are subject to mandatory withholding.

RELATED: Your Taxes ... If You're a Freelancer

tax forms

Get This From Your Employer: W-2

This is the form you get in the mail from your employer (or employers if you freelance or had more than one job) after the end of the year. If it doesn't arrive by mid-February, contact your employer(s) and ask that they send it, because it is crucial for filing a correct tax return. It tallies how much you earned and paid in federal and local income taxes and Social Security. It will also tell you how much you put aside for a 401(k) or pretax spending accounts (say, for health care or dependent care) if you chose to do so.

Get This From Your Clients: 1099

If you’re self-employed, clients or companies that hire you as a contractor and/or freelancer might send this to you before the tax filing deadline. It gives you a summary of money they’ve paid to you, which is, hence, the amount that you need to pay taxes on. Make sure the amounts listed on your W-2s and 1099s match exactly what you put on your return. The IRS automatically flags returns with inconsistencies for potential audit.

Next: Choose Your 1040

You'll need to choose the 1040 that is right for you. This is the most basic form that everyone fills out in order to give the IRS a complete picture of your financial and tax situation. While everyone does fill out a 1040, there are three different kinds, tailored to the simplest or the most complicated tax situations. You should pick the simplest form suitable to your personal circumstances, but no simpler.

Self-Employed or High Income: 1040

The mother of all tax forms. It’s the one people start out with once they have anything more than some basic income to report. Unfortunately, once you use this form there’s a good chance you’ll need others as well, so we've linked them for you below. Go through the list of situations below, and if any of them apply to you, download the 1040 form to fill out. If none of these situations apply to you, congratulations, you have simpler taxes, and read on for the form that you need instead.

Use this form if: 

  • Your taxable income is $100,000 or more.
  • You are itemizing deductions or claim certain tax credits or adjustments to income.
  • You are reporting self-employment or miscellaneous (1099-MISC) income.
  • You are reporting gambling winnings.
  • You are deducting mortgage interest.
  • You had debt cancelled in 2012.
  • You received tips that you did not report to your employer. (Read this.)
  • You are reporting income from sale of property.
  • You received income as a partner in a partnership, shareholder in an S corporation, or are a beneficiary of an estate or trust.
  • You owe household employment taxes (like for a housekeeper, maid or gardener). Download the IRS's Schedule H instructions to find out if you owe these taxes.
  • You are claiming the adoption credit or received employer-provided adoption benefits. Read Form 8839 instructions.
  • You are an employee and your employer did not withhold Social Security and Medicare tax. See Form 8919 for details.
  • You had a qualified health savings account funding distribution from your IRA.
  • You are a debtor in a bankruptcy case filed after October 16, 2005.
  • To see the other, less-seldom used instances where you need a 1040 form, read this form.

Simpler: 1040A

If you read the above situations and none of them apply to you, then congratulations, you don't need to use a 1040 (which is great news). You might use the 1040A instead, which is somewhat simpler. Do any of these situations apply to you? If so, download the 1040A.

Use this one if:

    • You are claiming any dependents. Learn more about who qualifies as a dependent.
    • You--or your spouse, if filing jointly--were over age 65 as of January 1, 2013.
    • You only had income from these sources:

-Salary
-Tips
-Interest and ordinary dividends
-Capital gain distributions
-Taxable scholarship and fellowship grants
-Pensions, annuities or IRAs
-Unemployment compensation
-Taxable Social Security and railroad retirement benefits
-Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.

-Child tax credit
-Additional child tax credit
-Hope and Lifetime Learning education credits
-Earned income credit
-Child and dependent care expenses
-Credit for the elderly and disabled
-Credit for retirement savings contributions

  • You claim adjustments to income for IRA contributions, tuition and fees or student loan interest.
  • The only deductions you are taking are educator expenses, the IRA deduction, the student loan interest deduction and/or the tuition and fees deduction.
  • You—or your spouse if filing jointly—are blind.
  • Your taxable interest was over $1,500.

Simplest: 1040-EZ

If none of the situations described under the 1040 or 1040A section apply to you, then you have simple finances, and need a simple form. This form has the most self-explanatory name. It's easy! It's generally used by younger people with a job with a steady paycheck.

Use this if: 

  • Your filing status is single or married filing jointly (find out what your filing status is).
  • You aren't claiming any dependents.
  • Your income includes only wages, salaries, tips, taxable scholarship and fellowship grants, unemployment compensation or Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.
  • Your taxable income is less than $100,000 (Find out what your taxable income is.)
  • Your earned tips, if any, are included in boxes 5 and 7 on your W-2 form.
  • The only credit you are claiming is the earned income credit.

Finish: Pick Your Additional Forms

Once you choose your 1040, you might need to fill out additional forms. Here are the most common ones: 

If You're Itemizing: Schedule A

This schedule is for those who will itemize their taxes. Find out if you should itemize.

If You Had Interest and Dividends: Schedule B

This form is for taxable interest (like from a savings account) and dividend income (from your investments).

Use this if: Your taxable interest and dividend income exceeds $1,500.

If You Are Self-Employed: Schedule SE and Schedule C

These two forms are for people who are in business for themselves, among other situations. The schedule SE calculates the self-employment tax you owe, while the Schedule C addresses taxes specific to your business. You'll need to fill them both out.

Use these forms if:

  • You have income that isn't withheld. For example, as a freelancer, you won't have income withheld for taxes every time you receive a check from a project.
  • You own your own business.
  • You received income from dividends, interest, capital gains, rents or royalties.
  • You did not elect voluntary withholding on your salary, unemployment income or Social Security benefits.

If You Are Simply Self-Employed: Schedule C-EZ

If you're a freelance graphic designer or writer, you have a pretty simple business and can use a simplified form instead of the Schedule C above.

Use this form if:

  • Your business expenses are $5,000 or less
  • You only have one business
  • You did not make a net loss
  • You have no employees
  • You have no inventory (sorry Etsy sellers, you need the more complicated form, Schedule C)
  • You are not using depreciation or deducting the cost of your home

If You Had Capital Gains and Losses: Schedule D and Form 8949

These forms are used to report capital gains and losses. This is when you sold a stock, mutual fund or property for more or less than what you paid for it. Because the rules governing these forms are very detailed and specific, make sure to read the IRS instructions if you think any of these circumstances might apply to you. Find instructions on the IRS website.

Use these forms if:

  • You sold stock, mutual funds or other investments
  • You had a gain or loss from a partnership, S corporation, estate or trust
  • You loaned money to someone, unrelated to a business, and you cannot collect it (a bad debt)
  • You received a Form 2439, Notice to Shareholder of Undistributed Long-Term Capital Gains, from your mutual fund
  • You sold assets from your business
  • You made a gain or loss on other assets, like futures contracts, etc.

If You're Claiming Education Credits: Form 8863

This form is used to claim education credits.You can find out more about them here.

Use this form if:

  • You qualify for the American Opportunity Credit
  • You qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit

If You Are Taking a Tuition and Fees Deduction: Form 8917

Another form for college students, their parents or spouses, this is what you fill out to take a tuition and fees deduction.

Use this form if:

  • You were enrolled in and paid expenses for an eligible education institution, or
  • You paid tuition and fees for a spouse or dependent enrolled in an eligible education institution.

Don't use this form if:

  • Your filing status is married filing separately. (Find out what your filing status is.)
  • Another person can claim an exemption for you as a dependent on his or her tax return. You cannot take the deduction even if the other person does not actually claim that exemption. Learn more.
  • Your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is more than $80,000 ($160,000 if filing a joint return).
  • You were a nonresident alien for any part of the year and did not elect to be treated as a resident alien for tax purposes. More information on nonresident aliens can be found in Pub. 519, U.S. Tax Guide for Aliens.
  • You or someone else claims the American opportunity or lifetime learning credit for the same student. (A state tax credit will not disqualify you from claiming a tuition and fees deduction.)

Wait, Wait, Wait!

Something not quite right? There are forms for that:

If You Need to Make a Change: 1040x

This is the form you use to make changes on a 1040 form you already filed with the IRS.

Use this form if:

  • You need to make a correction on form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, 1040NR or 1040NR-EZ.
  • You want to make certain elections (like what your filing status will be) after the deadline.
  • You want to change amounts previously adjusted by the IRS.
  • You want to make a claim for a carryback due to a business loss or unused credit.

If You Need to File an Extension: Form 4868

This is the form you'll use to file for an extension. This will give you six more months to file your forms, but NOT six more months to pay your taxes.

Use this form if: You need more time to prepare your tax return.

Don't use this form if: You need more time to find money to pay your taxes. If that's the case, this post tells you what you can do.

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