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Filing Your First Income Tax Return

Filing your income tax returns may sound frightening, but it is not as bad as it may sound.  It is something that everyone has been doing since 1913 and is something you will be doing for the rest of your life.  You may decide to use a professional to help prepare your return or prepare it yourself with or without the help of income tax software like TurboTax or TaxCut.  In any case, here are some things you should know to help make the process easier. 

The Basics

How do income taxes work?  The income tax laws are quite complex, but they generally boil down to a few fundamentals:

  • Income subject to tax includes wages, investment income (dividends, interest and capital gains), distributions from retirement plans, self-employment income, income from partnerships and Sub-Chapter S corporations and a few other items.
  • Your income is then reduced by certain adjustments.  Most people have few of these (other than deductible IRA contributions and certain tuition and educational expenses).
  • You then receive deductions for itemized expenses like state and local taxes paid, mortgage interest, charitable contributions and a few other less common items.  If you do not have a lot of these itemized deductions, you are allowed to take a standard deduction.  For 2024, the standard deduction for single filers is $14,600 and $29,200 for married couples filing a joint return.  You also get a reduction for personal exemptions you claim.
  • The net of these three items is your taxable income. 

Once you have your taxable income calculated, you then apply different tax rates based on the bracket of your income.  There are different rates for single individuals and married couples filing joint returns.  Think of this like a stair step – income in your lowest brackets is taxed at the lowest rates and as you climb the stairs, your taxable income gets taxed at higher rates.

Then you determine if you owe money with your return or if you have a refund coming.  Your employer withholds income taxes from each paycheck.  You simply compare what has already been withheld with your calculated tax liability.  Generally, unless you have a lot of non-wage income or a complicated tax situation, you will have a small refund or owe a small amount.  If your refund is large or if you owe quite a bit, you should consider changing how much you are having withheld. 

Information you will need

For most people starting out and not using itemized deductions, the information you will need is simple – your employer will send you a Form W-2 for your wages and your financial institutions will send you Form 1099s with information on your dividends, interest and other investment income. 

If you are itemizing your deductions because you have deductions larger than the standard deduction amounts, you will need information documenting those expenses.  Your W-2 will have information on state and local income taxes withheld and you will get a statement from your mortgage lender with mortgage interest information. You will need copies of cancelled checks or other receipts for other deductions. 

When to file

Your income tax return is typically due on April 15th of the following year, unless April 15th falls on a weekend or holiday. In this case, the return is due on the next business day. You can file earlier if you wish, and it is recommended you do so to help avoid any potential tax fraud issues.  You should get your W-2 by the end of January and your 1099 forms shortly thereafter. 

You can also file an application for extension of time to file your return, but most people do not do this unless they absolutely need to.  In addition, getting an extension does not remove the requirement of paying any amount due beyond April 15th

What IRS form(s) you will need

Form 1040 is the primary form you will need to complete to file your IRS tax return.  Depending on your situation, you may also need additional Schedule forms. The 1040 instructions will help you determine which Schedules you need, and if you do use tax preparation software or a tax preparer, they will provide you with all the necessary forms. However, all forms are available online at www.irs.gov, and you can usually also find them at public libraries and some post offices. 

You may also want to consider using income tax software to prepare your return.  There are several programs available, including TurboTax, TaxCut and others.  These programs make the process easier by stepping you through an interview and printing the forms.  They also can enable you to file your return electronically.  The IRS website also may have simple software available. 

What to keep and for how long?

Most of the advice here is relatively simple.  You should keep copies of your actual returns forever and you must keep the documents to support anything on your return for at least three years following the due date of the return.  

Where it gets complicated is usually with investments and home ownership.  You need to be able to document what you paid for a stock for three years past the due date of the return reflecting the sale of the stock.  Most brokerage firms provide a year-end statement that shows this information, so it is a good idea to keep year end statements.  Record retention for home ownership involves keeping records of what you paid for your home and the cost of any improvements you make. 

Final Words

Everyone’s tax situation is different.  This article presents only some of the basic information you may find helpful.  If your situation is complicated or if you do not feel comfortable with any part of preparing your return, find and use the services of a qualified tax professional.