Most people hate filling out tax forms almost as much as they hate forking over dough to Uncle Sam. That's why you should use the simplest tax return form you can, especially if you're still filling out your forms by hand.
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But choose carefully. While all the personal income tax forms -- 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ -- are designed to get the appropriate amount of your money to the Internal Revenue Service, the differences in these returns could cost you if you're not paying attention.
The EZ is the shortest and simplest form, the 1040A is a bit more complex, and the long 1040 is the most detailed and potentially difficult. But even though your tax life is simple and straightforward, it might be worth your while to investigate the other two forms. Why? Generally, the longer the form, the more opportunities for tax breaks.
How the EZ could cost you
Take the case of Joe P. Taxpayer. Joe finished college last year and got his first full-time job making $35,000. He's single, renting and has no investment income. A perfect 1040EZ filer, right? Sure, if you're Uncle Sam, because Joe will overpay his taxes by using the short form.
Why? The 1040EZ doesn't offer Joe some valuable tax breaks found on the other two returns.
Joe has a student loan. By filing the 1040A he can subtract from his income the $2,500 interest he paid on that debt. He can't do that with the shortest form. Joe also started planning for his retirement by putting $5,000 into a traditional IRA. Because his new employer doesn't offer a company retirement plan, Joe's deductible IRA contribution can reduce his taxable income further, but only if he files the longer form.
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By choosing the 1040A over the 1040EZ, suddenly Joe owes taxes on just $27,500 instead of on his full $35,000 salary. And he's dropped into a lower tax bracket -- the 15% one instead of the 25% tier -- even before he reduces his taxable income further by taking the personal exemption that every taxpayer is allowed and his standard deduction amount.
Joe also would get the chance to reduce his actual bill if he files the longer 1040A. On that form (as well as the Form 1040), he would find the retirement savings tax credit that he could claim in connection with his IRA contribution. A credit allows you a dollar-for-dollar reduction of what you owe the IRS. But this credit isn't available on the 1040EZ.
So, opting to file Form 1040A instead of 1040EZ saved Joe a bundle. And there are even more tax-saving opportunities found on the long form 1040. They might not apply to Joe, but they could cut your tax bill -- if you take the time to look over each of the forms. Here are the basic guidelines for the three individual tax returns.
The simplest IRS form is the Form 1040EZ. And ever since the IRS doubled the earning limit on filers who use it a couple of years ago, the EZ has been available to even more taxpayers.
You can file the 1040EZ return if:
* Your filing status is single or married filing jointly.
* You're younger than 65. Your spouse also must meet the age requirements if you file a joint return. If you or your spouse's 65th birthday is Jan. 1, then for filing purposes you are considered to have turned 65 last year and therefore cannot file this form.
* You (or your spouse if filing jointly) were not legally blind during the last tax year.
* You have no dependents.
* Your interest income is less than $1,500.
* Your income, or combined incomes for joint filers, is less than $100,000.
The ease of the one-page 1040EZ is appealing, but it limits the number of ways to save on your tax bill.
This shortest personal return restricts filers to claiming just two credits: the new Making Work Pay credit and the earned income tax credit, or EITC, a tax break designed to help out individuals who don't make much money.
How you collect the EITC also could determine whether you can file the EZ. If you received advance payment of the earned income credit during the year through your employer, then you can't use this easiest of returns; you'll have to file the long 1040 or 1040A.
You also need to look at those other two individual tax returns to take advantage of additional income adjustments and tax credits.
The 1040A form is the next step up the tax-form ladder. As with the EZ form, the earning limit on filers wanting to use the 1040A has increased, so more taxpayers should be able to use it.
Individuals choosing the 1040A can file using any of the five available filing status options: single, married filing jointly or separately, qualifying widow or widower, or head of household. 1040A filers also can claim, in addition to the EITC, several tax credits -- the child, additional child, education, dependent care, elderly or disabled and retirement savings credits -- that are not available with the EZ.
You also can file Form 1040A if:
* Your taxable income, or combined incomes, is below $100,000.
* You have capital gain distributions, but no other capital gains or losses.
* You do not itemize deductions.
Form 1040A also gives you the chance to claim several adjustments to income. These items are sometimes referred to as above-the-line deductions, because you claim them just before the bottom line of the form, the one where you enter your adjusted gross income. By reducing your total gross income, your taxable income will be lower and your tax bill should be smaller, too.
Adjustments allowed on Form 1040A include educator expenses, certain IRA contributions, student loan interest and some college tuition and fees.
Finally, choose Form 1040 if your earnings are larger, you itemize deductions or you have more complex investments and other income to report. This usually means added tax paperwork needs to be filed, too.
Additional paperwork also is associated with the many tax credits that show up only on the long 1040. The extra work, however, is offset by the added savings these credits, such as the one for taxes you paid to a foreign country or the one that helps cover some adoption costs, can produce for 1040 filers.
The longest return also offers more than a dozen above-the-line deductions that you can claim directly on the form itself (versus the four adjustments found on the 1040A). These allow you to reduce your gross income, thereby reducing the amount of income that's ultimately taxed. The adjustments include, among other things, breaks for alimony payments you made, self-employment taxes you paid or moving expenses you incurred.
These income deductions are found at the bottom of the 1040's front page, meaning you don't have to hassle with Schedule A and its itemizing limits. You will, however, have to fill out an additional form or schedule to claim a couple of these breaks.
You should file Form 1040 if:
* Your income or combined incomes for joint filers totals more than $100,000.
* You itemize deductions.
* You have self-employment income.
* You received income from the sale of property.
The "Which form should I use?" section of IRS Publication 17 has more details, examples and special circumstances requiring additional forms.
And just because you got a particular income tax form in the past, that doesn't mean you have to use it. If your situation has changed -- say, you now have enough deductions to make itemizing worthwhile -- then file a different form.
It could be tax money in your pocket.