What to expect – and what to do – when filing a tax return for the first time

January 10, 2017 : Annelise Wiens

When millions of taxpayers file their first tax return early this year, they may find they are one of the 34 percent of taxpayers who like or even love doing taxes. But even if they end up with the majority who dislike the task, there are a few tax tips to help ease the process and get the best possible outcome.

#1 When a taxpayer MUST file

Filing requirements depend on a combination of circumstances, including filing status, income and age. Taxpayers who aren’t sure if they have to file a return can answer an online IRS quiz, but must know their filing status, federal income tax withheld and gross income.

Generally, taxpayers must file if their gross income exceeds $10,350 for single filers or $20,700 for married couples filing jointly. However, if a taxpayer is a dependent of another taxpayer, the dependent will have a lower filing requirement that could kick in as low as $1,050 in unearned income or $6,300 for earned income.

#2 When a taxpayer SHOULD file

Anyone earning income should consider filing a return, even if the IRS does not require them to file. Workers who are not required to file a tax return because their income is below their filing threshold should file a return to get a refund of all taxes withheld and/or to claim other tax benefits, such as the earned income tax creditOne in five eligible taxpayers do not claim this credit, which averages $2,482 per taxpayer. Millions of workers miss this credit because they are not required, and decline, to file.

#3 When to file

The deadline for filing federal individual tax returns is typically April 15. In 2017, federal tax returns for most taxpayers will be due April 18 because the 15 falls on a Saturday and the 17 falls on a federal holiday. This is also the deadline to request an automatic six-month extension to file, which gives taxpayers until October 15 to submit a return without a late-filing penalty. The six-month extension deadline is October 16 year because October 15 is a Sunday.

#4 When to pay

To avoid late payment penalties and interest, taxpayers must pay at least 90 percent of any taxes owed by the April deadline. Even if they file for an extension, the extended October deadline only applies to filing the return, not the tax payment.

#5 How to file

Do-it-yourself software and online tax programs select the appropriate forms and use everyday language, making tax law easier to understand. However, the assistance from a qualified tax professional can help put taxpayers of all income levels at ease and does not require any understanding of taxes. Ultimately, it is the taxpayer’s comfort level and personal preference that determine the best method.

When choosing a tax professional, taxpayers should look for someone with ongoing education and expertise, who can keep personal information secure, guarantees their work and is available year-round. When looking for a DIY option, taxpayers should choose a reputable program that uses multiple layers of protection and guarantees its results.

#6 How to fix a mistake

If a taxpayer discovers a mistake on their return after filing, they can file an amended tax return at any time. To get a refund, the original or amended return must generally be filed three years from the original due date of the return. For example, an amended return for tax year 2013 must generally be filed by April 18, 2017.

#7 How to make changes for a better outcome next year

If first-time filers finish their return and discover they had too much or too little tax withheld during the year – meaning they got too big a refund or owed more – they can adjust how much tax is withheld in 2017. They should review, and change if necessary, the W-4 form they completed for their employer. The employer uses the W-4 to determine how much income tax to withhold from paychecks to cover tax liability. Employees can adjust their W-4 at any time.

W-4 calculator can help taxpayers decide how to fill out or adjust their own W-4.

#8 How to file for free

Many first-time filers will only need to file a 1040EZ – the shortest and simplest tax form. Generally, a 1040EZ filer is a taxpayer who files single or married filing jointly who does not pay mortgage interest, has no dependents and earned less than $100,000 last year.

Approximately 23 million taxpayers can file a federal 1040EZ for free through February 28 at participating H&R Block offices. This gives those taxpayers access to expert assistance in completing their returns and guarantees they get their maximum refund. Because even when filing a simple return, having assistance from a qualified tax professional provides taxpayers confidence that they aren’t leaving any money on the table.

Taxes can be intimidating, but first-time filers who at least know what to expect will be better prepared for tax season – and may even learn to love it.

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Annelise Wiens

Annelise Wiens

Editor and Producer

As the newsroom editor, Annelise Wiens is interested in more than just tax and industry news, but the stories of H&R Block's 80,000 associates, their communities and H&R Block's world headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri. Wiens joined H&R Block in 2014 from a public relations agency, where she worked with clients in the financial services industry. Before that, she worked as a communicator for a senior member of the United States House of Representatives. She graduated from Biola University in La Mirada, CA with a bachelor's degree in history.

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