A Basic Checklist for Filing Your Taxes

Laveta Brigham

Filing your taxes can be a hassle, but it doesn’t have to be if you go into the process prepared. With tax day fast approaching, now’s the time to get started. The four-step checklist below will make submitting your returns to the IRS (and your state) as easy as possible. […]

Filing your taxes can be a hassle, but it doesn’t have to be if you go into the process prepared. With tax day fast approaching, now’s the time to get started.

The four-step checklist below will make submitting your returns to the IRS (and your state) as easy as possible. So put these items on your to-do list so you’re ready to go when the IRS begins accepting returns for the 2020 tax year. 

Man completing tax forms at a desk with laptop, calculator, and coffee mug on top.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Gather all your paperwork

You’re going to need lots of financial information to file your tax returns, so it’s best to have it ready before you get started. Some of the documents to assemble include:

  • Forms showing your income such as W2s, 1099s, and K-1s for investment income 
  • Forms reporting benefits that could be taxable such as your SSA-1099 form reporting Social Security income
  • Records of tax-deductible contributions to accounts such as IRAs and health savings accounts (HSAs)
  • Receipts for deductible expenses such as medical expenses exceeding the requisite percentage of your income
  • Forms or receipts for expenses that could entitle you to tax credits such as Form 1098-T that shows tuition paid, receipts for classroom supplies if you’re a teacher, or receipts for energy-efficient products added to your home
  • Forms showing the payment of deductible interest including mortgage and student loan interest paid 
  • A record of your charitable donations if you itemize or plan to claim up to a $300 deduction available for non-itemizers in 2020 
  • Form 1095-A if you purchased insurance on an Obamacare exchange so you can ensure you receive the right amount of tax credits to help you pay health insurance premiums 

There may also be other documents you need, as well, such as information about state and local taxes paid if you’re itemizing and claiming the SALT deduction. Any forms or financial paperwork that affect your taxable income should be assembled and ready to go. 

2. Decide on the best way to file 

Will you use an accountant to submit your forms for you, make use of tax filing software, or go it alone and submit paper forms? For most people, using an online software program is the most cost-effective way to complete taxes. You’ll get help through a complicated process but won’t have to pay a premium for expert advice.

If you’ve gone through big life changes, though, or if your situation is complicated — perhaps because you have multiple unusual income sources or you run a business — it may be worth biting the bullet and working with a certified public accountant (CPA). 

3. Add up your possible deductions

Many of your tax-filing choices are clearcut. For example, IRS rules dictate whether you’re eligible to file as single, head-of-household, or married — although married couples get to decide if they’ll file separately or jointly. 

But you get to choose if you want to claim the standard deduction (available to everyone) or if you’d prefer to itemize. Itemizing makes sense only if the value of your specific deductions exceeds the amount of the standard deduction.

For your 2020 taxes (which you’ll file in 2021), the standard deduction is $12,400 for singles, $18,650 for heads of household, or $24,800 for married joint filers. For many people, this adds up to more than the amount they could claim if they itemize. You’ll need to decide if that’s the case for you by adding up deductible expenses including mortgage interest, state and local taxes paid, medical expenses, and charitable contributions. 

4. Complete your tax returns

Once you have your forms, have decided whether to itemize, and have chosen your method of filing, it’s time to complete your tax returns. This includes your 1040 form for the IRS, as well as state tax forms if they’re required where you live. Your accountant will take care of the paperwork for you if you’ve hired one or you’ll do it yourself using either online software or by completing paper copies of your returns. 

Make sure you submit all your forms to the IRS by the tax deadline, which is April 15, 2021 for the 2020 tax year. State forms will be sent separately and, if you’ve used a tax-filing program, you may have to pay an additional fee to file them.

You should also get your forms in on time, even if you’ll have a tax bill you won’t be able to fully pay, since the federal failure-to-file penalty exceeds the penalty assessed for late payments. If you’ve followed these steps, completing the process will hopefully be easy. 

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