Why You Should File A Tax Return

Not every taxpayer is required to file a return. Depending on your income level, you may be entitled to claim more in deductions and credits than you’ve earned for the year. In these situations, you aren’t required to file a tax return since you have no taxable income to report to the IRS.

Let’s say you are a single taxpayer with less than $10,400 in income for the year. You won’t need to file a return because the standard deduction ($6,350) and the personal exemption ($4,050) you are allotted reduce your entire income amount to zero. The same is true for married taxpayers who earn up to $20,800 last tax year.

But did you know that just because you don’t have to file a tax return doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. You may be entitled to a refund just for filing, however you won’t know if you don’t file a tax return.

If you’ve received a tax credit to reduce the cost of your health insurance from the Marketplace, you’ll want to file a return to continue receiving the credits. You’ll receive a Form 1095-A, Health Insurance Marketplace Statement, to indicate that you received the credit. You’ll need to reconcile your credit by filing a tax return along with Form 8962, Premium Tax Credit, to calculate the difference between the credit you received and the credit you’re entitled to.

Should you fail to file, you’ll have to repay the amount of the credits you received, and you won’t be able to use any future tax credits toward your health insurance.

Also, some tax credits are refundable, so you should file a return if you’re eligible to claim any of these. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is an example of a refundable credit, available to low income workers. You’ll have to file a tax return in order to claim it, and it can be worth thousands of dollars, so it’s definitely worth it. You may still qualify even if you’ve paid no income taxes. The max amount of the EITC for 2017 is $510 per person with no children, and up to $6,318 with three or more dependents and certain income requirements.

The IRS reports that 27 million taxpayers who claimed the EITC were allotted a total $65 billion in credits. The average taxpayer received more than $2,400 by claiming the EITC, and some states offer a similar credit that can add more cash back.

However, the IRS also reports that one out of every five eligible taxpayers fail to claim the EITC. Taxpayers who earn less than $55,930 should definitely use the tools available on the IRS website to check their eligibility for the EITC.

You’ll need to file Form 1040, 1040A, or 1040-EZ with your correct earned income amount to claim the EITC. IF you have one or more qualifying children, you’ll need to attach Schedule EIC and provide the required information about those children to the IRS

The Form 1099 Explained

There are a variety of Form 1099 one may receive when collecting their tax documents. If you’re a worker, you won’t fill out the form yourself, but will receive it from the party who paid you or holds your investment account. Its one of the few tax forms that simply report information and you aren’t required to fill them out yourself.

1099-Misc: This type is for miscellaneous income, such as freelancing work, independent contracting services, or internships. Regular employees have their income reported via a W-2. Those who paid a freelancer or independent contractor will need to use a 1099-MISC to report the person’s wages, so make sure the person who hired you has your correct information and address.

1099-INT: You’ll receive this form if the bank has paid you interest periodically. If you have a savings account, the bank will supply a 1099-INT to document the total amount of interest you earned throughout the year. It is taxable, so don’t forget to report it when you file your tax return, even if it’s a small amount.

1099-DIV: Used for reporting dividends from any investment accounts, a 1099-DIV will be supplied from your broker. Dividends are different from capital gains and losses acquired when selling assets, as these are reported separately. Don’t forget to include dividends when you file your tax return.

1099-G: G is for government, meaning any earnings from unemployment or state tax refunds are reported on this form. Unemployment compensation is taxed at the federal level and needs to be reported on your tax return. If you claimed a deduction for state taxes, you’ll need to report state taxes listed on the 1099-G as income when you file your federal return.

1099-R: This form is used to report withdrawals from a traditional IRA or other retirement account. The form will come from your broker that handles your retirement account and will document each withdrawal throughout the year. This form also covers pensions, profit-sharing and annuity withdrawals as well.

1099-C: Comes from a creditor who has canceled a portion of your debt. For example, your credit card company offers a settlement of your debt, and you can expect to receive a 1099-C. The bad part is that canceled debt is considered taxable income, so your tax liability may increase.

All 1099 forms should be received by January 31st to allow for enough time to complete your tax return by the April tax deadline. You should contact your bank or employer if you haven’t received your 1099 form and ensure that they have the correct information on file.

Estimated Tax Payments

If you are an employee of a business, the employer is responsible for deducting federal and state taxes from your salary. However, independent contractors and self-employed individuals have to take care of this financial obligation on their own. Generally, these individuals will make estimated quarterly tax payments, and skipping them can lead to penalties and interest. Here’s what you need to know regarding estimated tax payments:

Estimated Taxes

Earnings that aren’t subject to withholding will require the taxpayer to make estimated tax payments to cover their financial liability to the IRS. This type of income can come from dividends, rent, self-employment income, alimony, and awards. If your income has had taxes withheld, you may still owe estimated taxes if you haven’t paid enough income tax.

The first time you have to pay estimated taxes can be a little confusing when you try to determine the amount you owe. Self-employed individuals don’t just owe federal income tax; they are also subject to a 15.3% self-employment tax, which covers the amounts you’d be taxed for Medicare and Social Security.

Don’t forget about deductions, which lower your taxable income, therefore reducing your tax liability. Next, you’ll want to claim any credits you qualify for.

If you owe income taxes as an employee, you have to pay the full amount by April’s filing deadline to avoid interest and penalties. Estimated taxes work a little differently as they are paid in four quarterly installments: April. June, September and January of the next year.

You’ll need to pay enough taxes on each o these due dates to avoid a penalty. Even if you’re owed a refund in April, you can still get penalized for underpayment on one of the due dates. You’ll need to ow less than $1,000 in taxes to avoid being penalized, or you may opt to pay 90% of your liability for the current year, or prove you paid everything for the prior year (Whichever amount is smaller).

State Taxes

You’re not just required to pay federal taxes, so don’t forget to factor in your state income tax as well. States impose the same due dates for estimated taxes as federal taxes, and depending on the state, you may face penalties or fines for underpayment or late payments.

What is the Alternative Minimum Tax?

Targeting high-income taxpayers, the alternative minimum tax was enacted to combat only 155 households who were getting away with not paying any tax at all through credits, deductions, and exemptions. By today’s numbers, the AMT covers millions of families and grows each year. In 2008, the AMT grew to 3.9 million (up from 605,000 in 1997) taxpayers, an equivalent of about 4% of all individuals.

The alternative minimum tax adds certain tax-beneficial items back into your adjusted gross income, recalculating your income tax. There’s a specific set of rules assigned to the AMT regarding how to determine taxable income with allowed deductions

If you opt not to use tax software to do your taxes, and prefer manual filing, you’ll basically need to do your taxes twice to determine if you need to pay the AMT. Calculate your taxes with the standard 1040 rules, and again with the AMT rules.

Situational Example:

The easiest way to explain which tax return is right is to say that the IRS will count the higher of the two amounts: either the standard federal tax or the AMT rate.

For instance, you calculate your tax for the current year is $10,000 using the standard 1040 rules. You also determine your alternative minimum tax is only $5,000. Since the AMT is lower than your federal taxes, you are not required to pay any alternative minimum amount.

Conversely, if the above scenario determines that your traditional taxes equate to $10,000 but the AMT rules increase your taxes to $15,000, then you would become subject to the rules of the AMT and be liable for paying the greater amount, $15,000.

What is Form 3921?

Have you worked at a private startup for over a year, and held employee incentive stock options? If so you likely received a Form 3921 from your employer. Now that it’s tax season, here’s what you need to do.

This form documents to the IRS that you have exercised stock options from your employer, and reports any unrealized losses and gains affiliated with those stocks.

An unrealized gain or loss occurs when you’ve bought something, for example, shares of the company, at a specific price, and the value has either increased or decreased since the time of purchase. It’s “unrealized” because you still hold the stocks and haven’t sold them to reap (or realize) the financial difference.

Information on the Form 3921

There’s different information reported on the Form 3921 as follows:

Box 1: Date of Options Granted- this is the date the options became available to you, generally the day you start as an employee or the day you received the options as an incentive.

Box 2: Date of Options Exercised – this is the date you purchased the options.

Box 3: Exercise Price Per Share – this is the price at which you purchased the shares.

Box 4: Fair Market Value Per Share on Exercise Date – this is the value of each share on the day you purchased.

Box 5: Number of Shares Transferred – lists how many shares you purchased

Box 6: If Other Than TRANSFEROR, Name, Address, and EIN of Corporation Whose Stock Is Being Transferred – listed here is information regarding the company who is providing you the stock.

All the information on Form 3921 is provided to help you determine a basic calculation which can be applied to Form 6251, Alternative Minimum Tax on Line 14, Exercise of Incentive Stock Options.

Using Form 3921

There are three different steps to complete to calculate your adjustment with Form 3921.

  1. Multiply the number in Box 4 by the number in Box 5 to determine how much the shares you have are currently worth.
  2. Multiply the number in Box 3 by the number in Box 5 to determine how much your shares were worth when they were offered and how much you paid to purchase these shares.
  3. Subtract the first number from the second to determine a specific dollar amount corresponding to your adjustment.

Don’t forget that alimony and child support have an impact on your taxes. You have to report the amounts when you file. Here’s the breakdown.


Alimony payments are deducted from your taxable income, which lowers the amount you are taxed on as long as you meet the following requirements:

  • You pay by cash, check, or money order.
  • Your spouse doesn’t live in the same house.
  • Payments made after your ex dies or remarries aren’t counted, as you aren’t required to pay these.
  • The payments must be for alimony only, and not counted toward child support.

If you’re the recipient of alimony payments, you are required to report them as income. You’ll need to provide your ex with your Social Security Number, so they are able to claim the payments. If you don’t provide your ex with your number, you may be subject to a $50 fine from the IRS.

Child Support

Child support payments don’t have as much impact on your taxes quite like alimony does.

You aren’t required to report or deduct child support; however, you may be able to claim the child as a dependent if you pay child support. There are no tax breaks related to support payments, however since you are technically supporting the child, even partly, you may be able to claim the child as a dependent.

Qualifying Widow or Widower Status

If you’ve lost your spouse, you may qualify for a special tax filing status. The qualifying widow(er) status can be used by taxpayers when filing a tax return after their spouse has died. There are some additional requirements that must be met as follows:

When you file a return for the year your spouse dies, you’re still eligible to file a joint return as long as you haven’t remarried and the executor of your spouse’s estate approves the joint return. However, if either spouse was a non-resident alien at any point, you won’t be able to file a joint return.

For that first year, you’ll include your entire amount of income and deductions for the whole year. Your spouse’s income and deductions are included up to the date of death, and if your spouse owed taxes, you may be liable for the outstanding debt if the estate can’t pay it.

For the next two years after the death, you’ll be eligible to use the qualifying widow(er) status, which offers a higher standard deduction and lower tax rate than the Single taxpayer status. There are certain requirements you have to follow in order to use the status:

  • You haven’t remarried.
  • You have a dependent child (not foster child) who lived with you the entire year and you provided more than half of the child’s support and maintenance costs for the home.
  • You were eligible to file a joint return the year your spouse died, even if you didn’t file jointly.

For the first year that your spouse died, you should still file married filing jointly. Then for the two tax years that follow, you can use the qualifying widow(er) status when you file your return.

Deducting Job Search Expenses

Many people don’t know they can write off expenses related to searching for a job, as its not a common deduction. That’s likely because there are specific rules regarding what is eligible for deduction and what isn’t.

First, expenses must be incurred while searching for a job within your current occupation. You can’t seek employment in a new industry and attempt to deduct the expenses.

You are able to deduct placement and employment agency fees as long as you’re seeking inside your current occupation. If you receive repayment of these fees later by an employer, you’ll have to include the reimbursement amount in your gross income, up to the amount you deducted earlier.

The costs of prepping and mailing copies of your resume to different employers within your current industry can also be deducted.

Looking for a new job may require travel. If you incur expenses to and from your destination while traveling to find work, as long as its within your current occupation, you can deduct the expenses.

You’re unable to deduct job search costs if there’s a significant period between your last job and the date you started looking for new employment.

You can’t deduct costs related to finding your very first job.

To be deductible, all job search expenses, combined with other costs, must exceed a specific limit, as job search expenses are categorized as a miscellaneous itemized deduction. These types of expenses must exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income (AGI) in order to be deducted.

Are Scholarships Taxable?

The answer is possibly. Scholarships can be partially tax-free, while some of the funding is considered taxable. It depends on how the funds are allocated.

If you are a full or part-time student working toward a degree at an eligible educational institution, including primary, secondary or post-secondary schools, then your scholarship is likely tax-free. There are certain expenses that the scholarship or fellowship can be used for in order to remain tax-free. Non-taxable scholarships must be applied to tuition, fees, books, supplies, and required equipment for your courses.

Your scholarship is taxable if you used any part of it for room and board, travel, research, clerical equipment, or other similar expenses. However, only the portion used for these expenses is considered taxable, as the amount used for tuition remains tax-free.

You don’t have to file a tax return if your scholarship is tax-free and it was the only income you had for the year.

Pell Grants and Fulbright Scholarships are often treated similarly when determining the amount that is tax-free. As long as they are used for qualifying educational expenses, Pell, Title IV and other need-based grants, are generally tax-free. Benefits given to veterans, like educational payments, trainings, or assistance are tax-free and do not need to be reported as income when filing a return.

What is an Innocent Spouse?

An innocent spouse seeks to be relieved from the liability of their spouse’s tax issues. Relief from Joint and Several Liability is Section 6015 of the Internal Revenue Code.

Married taxpayers who file a joint return are liable for taxes, interests, and penalties according to the return, as well as any other taxes the IRS imposes. As both parties are liable, there are some situations where one may claim relief from joint and several liability using IRC 6015.

If it’s determined that the taxpayer signed the return under duress, the return is not processed as a joint return. In this case, you are not held to joint and several liability, though you may need to file a separate return for the tax year. Joint and several liability even applies to taxpayers where one spouse earned all the income for the year, or for taxpayers who later get divorced.

To request relief, you must file Form 8857, along with a statement addressing the requirements for being granted relief. Relief may be requested if a tax controversy occurs, including any pre-assessments and collections as determined by the statute and Treasury requirements for relief. Innocent spouse is different from, and should not be confused with the rules for, an injured spouse. An injured spouse receives relief from over-payment using Form 8379.

Joint and Several Liability relief comes in three different forms:

  • Innocent Spouse Relief – 6015(b)
  • Separation of Liability – 6015(c).
  • Equitable Relief – 6015 (f)

Even if you seek relief using 6015 (b) or (c), if it is denied, you may still receive relief under 6015 (f).

Requesting Relief

If you wish to seek relief for Innocent Spouse Relief, Separation of Liability, or Equitable Relief, you’ll need to complete Form 8857 and file it with your taxes. You should review the requirements of IRC 6015 prior to filing the Form. You only need to file a single Form 8857, even if you’re requesting relief for multiple tax years. You’ll have to attach a brief to the Form 8857 stating the reasons you feel you qualify for relief. Check the instructions on the form for relevant information needed to properly complete the form.

The IRS has to inform the other party – your spouse or former spouse – if you request innocent spouse relief or separation of liability in order to encourage participation in determining how much relief you are entitled to. The IRS will contact the spouse to inform them of the relief request. There are certain safeguards in place to protect victims of domestic abuse. In these situations, you can write on the top of Form 8857 “Potential Domestic Abuse Case” and find more information on the IRS website.