The choice of which tax return to use may leave you scratching your head in confusion. Whether you still file a paper return each year or you electronically file your returns, you’re typically faced with choosing IRS Form 1040, Form 1040A or Form 1040EZ to report your income to the IRS. Among other factors, it depends on the type (and amount) of your income and filing status as to which tax return you need.
IRS 1040 Tax Return Series
The 1040 tax return series includes more forms than the 1040, 1040EZ and 1040A, but these three are generally the go-to returns for most taxpayers. You could think of the Form 1040A (also called the "short form") as hitting a happy tax-return medium between the IRS 1040EZ form and the 1040 form. Even shorter than the 1040A, the 1040EZ is the simplest form, and the 1040 form – also called the “long form” – is a bit more labor-intensive to complete. The tipping point of income for these three forms is $100,000. If you make less than $100,000, you can choose between the 1040EZ or the 1040A, and if you make more than $100,000, the long-form 1040 will likely be your return of choice.
If you’re deciding between the 1040EZ and the 1040A, dependents and deductions partly determine your choice, although there are also other considerations. To use the 1040EZ, you can’t claim any dependents and you’ll have to take the standard deduction instead of itemizing your deductions. To use the 1040A, you’ll also have to take the standard deduction, but you’ll be able to claim dependents.
New Form 1040A
Beginning with tax year 2018 (for returns filed in 2019), most taxpayers won’t have to figure out which 1040 form to use. The IRS is rolling out its new streamlined 1040, which offers a three-in-one version of the current 1040, 1040EZ and 1040A forms. Because this new form consolidates the instructions for all three forms, the current instructions for the 1040A may also be formatted differently.
Standard Vs. Itemized Deductions
Deductions are allowable expenses that you claim on your income tax return. By subtracting these deductions from your gross income, you reduce your taxable income and, therefore, also reduce the tax you owe. Taxpayers have the option of claiming the standard deduction, which varies depending on filing status, or itemizing deductions, which vary according to each taxpayer’s specific financial situation.
Since you can only claim one type of deduction, choose the one that results in the lowest tax liability.
If you file your income tax return with the 1040A, you can only claim the standard deduction. For the 2018 tax year, taxpayers who file single or married filing separately have a standard deduction of $12,000. Head of household filers have a standard deduction of $18,000, and married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er) take the standard deduction of $24,000. Elderly and blind taxpayers can take an additional standard deduction of $1,300, which increases to $1,600 if they are also unmarried.
After you enter your identifying taxpayer information at the top of your 1040A tax return, such as your name, address and Social Security number, Lines 1 through 5 prompt you to choose your filing status. The 1040A instructions explain the qualifying details for each of the five filing statuses, which are single, head of household, married filing separately, married filing jointly and qualifying widow(er). You may qualify to file under more than one status, but the IRS advocates choosing the one that results in the lowest tax.
Visit IRS.gov/forms and search for the 1040A instructions to review the filing status guidelines and choose the one that's best for you.
Form 1040A Instructions
Beginning with your filing status, you’ll work your way through 51 form fields on the 1040A. In the 1040A instructions, the IRS walks you through each of these fields and gives definitions, examples and exceptions to help you fill out the form. For manual calculations, the IRS also includes numerous worksheets for you to complete.
Form 1040 Worksheets
If filling out worksheets makes you feel like you’re taking a math test (and math was not your favorite subject in school), you can take a deep breath. The 1040A instructions offer detailed guidance and step-by-step flow charts to help you complete the worksheets without having to be a math genius or tax expert. For example, some of the worksheets ask yes-or-no questions, which direct you to the part(s) of the worksheets that applies to your situation. Among the worksheets in the 1040A are those that help you calculate: the taxable portion of certain income (such as pensions and annuities), student loan deductions, deductible and nondeductible contributions and earned income credit (EIC). But if you're still overwhelmed by figuring out the worksheets, help is only a phone call away to reach your tax accountant or tax preparer.
1040A Allowable Income Sources
The IRS categorizes income sources as "earned income" and "unearned income." Under each income category is a laundry list of subcategories. For example, wages and salaries are earned income, and interest and dividends are unearned income. There are only certain types of income you can have to be able to file a 1040A tax return. The 1040A instructions list these income types as:
- Wages, salaries and tips
- Interest and ordinary dividends
- Capital gain distributions
- Taxable scholarship and fellowship grants
- Pensions, annuities and IRAs
- Unemployment compensation
- Alaska Permanent Fund dividends
- Taxable Social Security and railroad retirement benefits
1040A Line 28
After you’ve figured your taxable income, based on the 1040A instructions, you’ll enter this amount on Line 27. Find this amount in the 1040A tax tables, also included in the 1040A instructions, and you’ll see the tax you owe under your filing status. This is the amount you’ll enter on Line 28.
Where to Get 1040A Forms
You can download and print tax forms, including the 1040A, at IRS.gov/forms. Simply enter the number of the form and follow the prompts to find the form. If it's around tax time, you can also pick up forms at your local library or post office. You can also pick up forms at an IRS field office.
IRS Electronic Filing for 1040A
If you’re among the growing number of taxpayers who prefer to file their returns electronically, the IRS offers its “Free File” option with these features:
- Greater accuracy. You’ll have fewer errors, which means faster processing for your 1040A tax return.
- Free. You do not have to pay a fee to access Free File and you don’t have to pay a fee to electronically transmit your tax return to the IRS.
- Faster refunds. The IRS notes that eight out of 10 taxpayers get faster refunds by e-filing their tax returns and using direct deposit.
- Security. Free File uses encryption technology that safeguards your personal information.
- Confirmation. After you submit your 1040A through Free File, the IRS will send you receipt confirmation, so you don't have to second-guess whether your tax return was actually received.
If your adjusted gross income is less than $66,000, you can use Free File software. The IRS has partnered with approximately 12 name-brand commercial tax software providers to allow you to use their software, free of charge. If your income is greater than $66,000, you'll be able to use Free File Fillable Forms, which are digital versions of paper IRS tax return forms.
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