Filing Basics

Federal tax returns must be filed if you earn enough income to be subject to tax, want to receive a refund, or are required to report certain information. A tax return must be filed if income was received that was not reported by the payer, such as service people earning tips, or if income exceeds a statutory amount that would incur a tax liability. This statutory minimum equals the personal exemption (= 0 until 2026) + the standard deduction. For the self-employed, the minimum is $400, since that is the minimum that must be reported for self-employment tax purposes. More information is provided on tax filing requirements based on income in Tax Filing Requirements. Additionally, there are several refundable tax credits, such as the earned income credit and the Additional Child Tax Credit, where the taxpayer may receive a refund even if there is no tax liability. Filing requirements also depend on filing status, since minimum income requirements vary from the lowest for single people, higher for head-of-household taxpayers, and highest for married filing jointly.

For those still filing paper returns, the return should be sent to addresses listed in the instructions to the tax form, and also listed at Where to File Paper Tax Returns With or Without a Payment. The address differs depending on:

Due Dates for Tax Filing, Tax Payments, and Reporting Certain Information

The filing and payment of taxes and other reporting requirements have due dates. If the required action is not performed by the due date, then additional interest or penalties may apply. If the due date falls on a weekend or holiday, then the due date is extended to the 1st business day after the 15th. Taxes must also be paid by the due date, even if an extension is granted. Otherwise, interest and late-payment penalties may be added to the amount of the tax due. In many years, the due date may be extended by an additional day because of Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in the District of Columbia. Since the headquarters of the Internal Revenue Service is located there, all its offices throughout the country are closed. So the due date for 2017 was April 18, since April 15 was a Saturday, and Emancipation Day was on Sunday, so Monday was a legal holiday for IRS employees.

For taxpayers based on a calendar year, which is most, tax returns must be filed by April 15, unless an extension is requested. An automatic 6-month extension will be granted if you file Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return by the due date of the return. The 6-month extension sets the due date for October 15, unless that day falls on a weekend, in which case, it will be the next business day. Note, that this is true even if the initial filing date was extended because of a weekend or Emancipation Day, so it may not be exactly 6 months after the initial due date.

If you are a US citizen or resident living and working outside of the US or Puerto Rico or you are in military service in those areas, then you have until June 15 to both file and pay your tax. A 4-month extension will be granted if you file form 4868 by the due date; this extension date will also fall on October 15. Likewise, alien residents with earned income that was not subject to withholding must also file and pay any tax by June 15.

If the taxpayer uses a fiscal year rather than a calendar year, which is any year that does not end in December, then the due date is the 15th day of the 4th month after the fiscal year ends. An automatic 4-month extension will be granted by filing Form 4868.

If you receive any income for which tax was not withheld, such as self-employment income, then you may also have to make estimated tax payments, which are due on April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15, although the last payment may be skipped if the tax return for that year is filed before February. Note that although there are 4 payments for the year, they are not quarterly, since the June payment is due 2 months after the April payment and the January payment is due 4 months after the September payment.

File Your Taxes for Free!

The IRS provides several ways to file your taxes for free. If your income is below a certain level, which in 2020 was $72,000, then you can go to the IRS’s Free File website (Free File: Do your Federal Taxes for Free) to select the tax preparation company who will complete your federal taxes for free and may also provide free state tax filing, though this will depend on the state. If the state return is not free, then they can charge you for doing the state return, usually a small fee. Most of the service providers allow you to choose selecting which forms you want to fill out or to guide your preparation by asking simple questions.

If your income exceeds the maximum for the IRS Free File Offer, then you may still file your taxes for free directly with the IRS by filling in electronic equivalents of paper tax forms. These forms will do simple calculations, but you will not get any additional advice on how to save on taxes. However, if your tax situation is like the previous year, then you can use that tax return, assuming that it was an accurate return, as a guide for doing a new tax return. Although the tax law and its provisions change continually, most of the changes are minor, often inflation adjustments, which would not affect how your taxes are done. Most states also provide free electronic filing, but the state tax return will have to be done separately from the federal tax return. Needless to say, the information is not transferred from the federal return to the state return, as is usually done by tax preparers, such as TurboTax.

The IRS also offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs for people who need assistance in preparing their tax returns, including people with disabilities or who speak little or no English. This program is staffed by volunteers who have been trained sufficiently to complete tax returns for others. The IRS requires a quality review check for every return before the return is filed. Additional information can be found here: Free Tax Return Preparation for Qualifying Taxpayers

The volunteers are usually located at colleges, churches, public libraries, community centers, and the United Way. The IRS also provides a VITA Locator Tool to find a location nearby, within so many miles of a ZIP Code. The Locator Tool also specifies what dates the volunteers are available, the distances from the ZIP Code, what languages are spoken there, and whether you must set up an appointment (in other words, you can’t just walk in if an appointment is required). Because the time to complete a tax return varies among individuals, an appointment will usually be necessary. If you speak a language other than English or Spanish, then you may have to select an increased number of miles from your location to find someone who can speak your language.

The AARP also provides virtual and in-person tax assistance free of charge (AARP Foundation Tax-Aide), focusing on taxpayers over the age of 50 or who have low-to-moderate income. They also have a Tax-Aide Site Locator, where the location can be designated by ZIP Code, county, or even street address and the number of miles from that location. You can also designate the type of service wanted: in-person, virtual service, or drop-off. A drop-off service is where you provide the information in an envelope, then simply drop it off at the site. Many of the sites, if not most of them, are at churches.

More on the Free File Program

The benefit of the Free File Program is that you cannot be charged for any fees for preparing or e-filing your federal tax return nor may the companies offer you any additional financial products, many of which charge a fee. Each of these companies also guarantees an accurate return based on the information you provide.

To get started, you will need to know your adjusted gross income (AGI) from the tax return of the previous year and any Social Security numbers for yourself, spouse, and any dependents that you will claim in your taxes. The IRS uses the AGI to help confirm your identity. If you do not know your AGI or a personal identification number receipts from the previous tax year, then you can get that information from the following website: IRS Get Transcript self-help tools

After completing your return, the software company will notify you if your tax return was accepted by the IRS, and if you file the state return, it will also notify you if your state tax return has been accepted. If it has not been accepted, then the software company will tell you how to correct it.

You will also need all your tax documents, including W-2s from your employers and Form 1099s that show your earnings from interest, dividends, retirement distributions, and self-employment income. If you received health insurance from the Health Insurance Marketplace, then you should also have a Form 1095 and a Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit.

If you owe taxes, then the software company will ask you for bank information that will allow the tax authorities to withdraw the payment. You will also receive the option to send the payment by check or to request the IRS for more time to pay.

Problems to Avoid

Many of these Free File programs have additional requirements besides income. Some companies require only certain types of income, such as employee income, or they may not handle certain types of credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Some of these companies even had a minimum income requirement. Why a minimum income requirement? Some companies took advantage of people who may have overestimated their income or who only considered the upper income limit but not the lower income limit. When the tax filer got to the end of the filing, the company would ask for payment, so the tax filer would either have to pay the fee or redo their taxes with another provider. Naturally, many people probably would not want to spend more time doing another tax return, so these companies would get their fee even though they were taking money from low-income people.

In previous years, the IRS simply allowed taxpayers to browse all the offerings, but now they also provide a IRS Free File Online Lookup Tool that will allow you to pick the providers that you qualify for. If you do not know your AGI, then the IRS will also help you to determine that, since your AGI is the major factor used to determine whether you qualify for the offer. Using the Lookup Tool will help to ensure that you qualify for a particular offer.

Filing a Tax Return for an Incompetent Person

If a person is incompetent, then a legal guardian must file and sign the return. If a person has a spouse, and the competent spouse can file and sign the return for the incompetent spouse without a power of attorney and if no legal guardian has been appointed for the incompetent spouse. However, if the spouse is mentally incompetent, then a joint return cannot be filed because the incompetent spouse cannot agree to the joint filing.