Easy Tips for Filing Your Tax Return Correctly

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Key Takeaways

  • Your annual tax return is usually due to the IRS by April 15 every year, though sometimes the date is later, so check every year so you know when to file. 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.
  • If you get help with filing your return, check the third-party designee box on your tax return if you want that person to be the IRS's point of contact in the event of errors or missing information.
  • Don't forget to sign your tax return.
  • Consider changing your tax withholding or increasing your estimated tax payments if you consistently owe money instead of getting refunds.

To file your tax return correctly, you need to know when to file your taxes—Tax Day can change from year to year. After that, make sure you understand which tax deductions and credits you can claim, as well as if you need help from a third party, like an accountant. You'll need to sign your tax return and prepare to pay any taxes you owe the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Mailing your return will take longer than if you file electronically, so consider the option that is right for you. Another easy tip to help you file correctly is to update your tax withholding so you don't owe as much next year, or to make quarterly estimated payments. These easy tips can help you file your tax return correctly each year.

Know When To File

Your annual federal tax return is usually due by Tax Day every year, which is normally April 15. Tax Day can change due to certain circumstances, so it's important to know when your return is due.

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 to file your tax return—it'll be due by Oct. 15.


If you file for an extension, you are still responsible for paying 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

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 by Tax Day 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, prepare a rough draft of your tax return as soon as possible. That will provide you with an idea of how much you owe.

Claim Deductions and Credits, and 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 out the situation and determines how much of a refund you have coming to you—or how much you'll owe.


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.

Ask for Help and Check the Box

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.


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, if 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.

Sign Everything for Your Tax Return

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 Tax Return, Staple It 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. You may also qualify for the IRS Free File program, so consider using that if you meet the income limit.

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.

Understand How Your Tax Refund Will Work

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.

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 up to two years from when you paid the tax, whichever is later. Generally, the three-year timeline starts when you initially file your return. If you filed for an extension or weren't able to pay your tax bill when you filed, 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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