Easy Tips to File Your Tax Return Correctly

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Filing your taxes correctly should be a straightforward process but, because of stress, anxiety, or procrastination, you could be forced into making errors on your return. Those errors could cost you time and money, so it's bets to know exactly what to do to make sure you turn in an error-free return that's processed quickly.

Key Takeaways

  • Filing on time can help you avoid refund delays, penalties, and interest charges.
  • IRS installment agreements are one way to manage outstanding tax balances you owe.
  • Check the third-party designee box on your return if someone helped you prepare your return and you want that person to be the IRS' point of contact in the event of errors or missing information.
  • Don't forget to sign your tax return.
  • Consider changing your W-4 withholdings or increasing your estimated tax payments if you consistently owe money instead of getting refunds.

Be Sure to File on Time

Tax Day is normally April 15, but it can change due to certain circumstances. if you feel like you need more time to file, you can ask for an extension by filling out Form 4868 and sending it to the IRS on or before the spring deadline. That gives you an additional six months until October 15.

Note

If you file for an extension, you are still responsible to pay your taxes due by the normal deadline. If you don't, you'll be subject to interest charges on what you owe. Additionally, you may have to pay a late-filing penalty if you can't prove you had "reasonable cause" for not paying on time.

Plan Ahead for Paying IRS Debt

You should settle the debt as soon as possible if you owe the IRS money. The penalty for failing to pay any taxes you might owe is 0.5% per month of the amount of your tax debt, not to exceed 25% of your tax debt overall.

If you can't pay all of what you owe, pay as much as you can when you file your return to minimize any penalties. Then, ask the IRS for a monthly payment plan called an "installment agreement." You can set up a payment plan to reduce the financial consequences if you don't think you can pay off your balance within a few months.

No matter your strategy or when you plan to file, you should prepare a rough draft of your tax return as soon as possible. That will provide you with an idea of how much you owe.

Double-Check Your Math

Double-check your math and your other tax return information as well if you're preparing your tax return yourself, including Social Security numbers. Entering erroneous information will delay your refund until the IRS straightens the situation out and determines how much of a refund you have coming to you—or how much you'll owe.

Note

Claiming tax deductions or credits that you don't actually qualify for, even though you might think you do, can delay your refund or result in an adjusted refund amount.

You can spare yourself a great deal of aggravation by purchasing tax preparation software. Most of these programs will walk you through your tax situation step by step, breaking down each scenario into simple questions. Enter your answers and other information into the program, and the software will prepare your return and e-file it for you. And, in many cases, the software comes with an accuracy guarantee.

If You Ask for Help

You must fill out the "third-party designee" section on your tax return if you enlist someone's help to prepare your tax return, and you want that individual to be able to discuss your tax return with the IRS on your behalf. Your tax professional can talk with the IRS about any questions or concerns the agency might have about your return when you do that.

Note

Third-party designations expire one year from the due date of your tax return. You'll have to fill out new third-party designee information if you want to use someone's help again next year,

Generally, the person who helped you with your return was a tax professional, and you paid them, they must also fill out the section of your return that asks for their identifying information. They must sign and date your return with you and provide their Social Security or taxpayer ID number to the IRS.

Be Sure to Sign Everything

You're required to sign your return, because your signature indicates that you're declaring, under penalty of perjury, that the information contained in it is true and accurate. If you don't sign your return, it will cause a delay.

You must also enter a date on your tax return. It should be the day you actually sign it. Telling the IRS your occupation and telephone number is optional, however.

If You're Mailing Your Return, Staple Your Tax Return Properly

Staple one copy of each of your W-2 statements to the front of your tax return if you're mailing in a paper copy. Sort them from lowest to highest by using the attachment sequence number if you must file other schedules and statements with your return. You can find this number in the upper right corner of the form.

Mail everything to the correct IRS service center when it's stapled together. The service center will depend on a variety of factors, such as your state of residence and whether you're also submitting a payment. The IRS provides a list of its mailing addresses on its website.

Of course, you can skip these details if you file online. The IRS provides a list of e-filing options you can use.

Increase Your Tax Withholding or Estimated Payments

Consider increasing your income tax withholding if it turns out that you owe the IRS money when you complete your return. That won't fix your situation for the current year, but it can help you avoid having the same problem next year. Fill out a new Form W-4 to increase your withholding, and give it to your employer.

You can increase your quarterly estimated tax payments if you're self-employed. No paperwork is required; you can make payments through the IRS website if you pay from a bank account.

Some Tax Credits Will Delay Your Refund

Your refund might be slightly delayed if you claim the earned income tax credit or the additional child tax credit, even if you do everything right. The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act prohibits the IRS from issuing these refunds before mid-February. The idea is to give the IRS time to ensure that all claims for these refundable tax credits are legitimate—another good reason to double-check and ensure that you qualify.

Your refund will be delayed until at least February if you file your return before then.

Note

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) temporarily expanded eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit in 2021. This includes more childless households as well as taxpayers under age 25 and over age 65. The ARP also increased the benefit that most households will receive from the Child Tax Credit, particularly households with low income.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How do you amend a tax return?

If you make a mistake on your initial return, you can update your return with Form 1040-X. You have up to three years to correct a mistake or otherwise update a prior year's return, or within two years from when you paid the tax, whichever is later. Generally, the three-year clock usually starts ticking when you initially file your returns. If you filed for an extension or weren't able to pay your tax bill when you filed, then that could complicate your window to amend your returns.

How do you track your tax return?

The IRS has an online tool for tracking your tax return status. You should check on your return's status if you haven't received a refund within 21 days of e-filing. If you mailed in your return, allow extra time for the return to travel to the IRS.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. IRS. "Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return," Page 2.

  3. IRS. "Failure to Pay Penalty."

  4. IRS. "Additional Information on Payment Plans."

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  6. IRS. "Third Party Authorization Purpose."

  7. IRS. "1040 (2021)," Click "Paid Preparer Must Sign Your Return" in the left sidebar.

  8. IRS. "IRS Tax Tip 2001-30: How To Prepare Your Tax Return for Mailing."

  9. IRS. "Pay Online."

  10. IRS. "Estimated Taxes."

  11. IRS. "About Form W-4, Employee's Withholding Certificate."

  12. IRS. "When to Expect Your Refund if You Claimed the Earned Income Tax Credit or Additional Child Tax Credit."

  13. Democratic Policy & Communications Committee. "American Rescue Plan Expanding Tax Relief for Working Families," Pages 1-3.

  14. IRS. "Amended Returns & Form 1040X."

  15. IRS. "Why It May Take Longer Than 21 Days for Some Taxpayers To Receive Their Federal Refund."

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