Follow a Tax-Time Checklist To Make Taxes Easy

Checklists Make Everything Easy, Even Taxes

An illustration depicting people taking on a variety of personal finance tasks.

The Balance

Filing a tax return doesn’t have to be difficult. Even if you aren’t the type to tidily file important documents, you can simplify the process, save yourself time, and protect against costly errors. All it takes is some advance preparation—including a checklist—to file taxes fast and get your refund as soon as possible.

Why You Need To Collect Tax Documents Before You File

Ideally, you’ve been organizing your tax-related paperwork all year, such as receipts, paystubs, and any forms that have arrived in the mail (e.g., W-2, 1099-INT, 1099-DIV, 1099-R, or 1099-MISC). Most tax forms arrive early in the new year, but if not, find and collect them. 

Your credit cards’ year-end summaries can help you identify tax-deductible expenses or charitable contributions. 

Not only do you need your tax documentation to file, but you may need to show it to the IRS if you’re audited. The IRS requires documentation for everything you claim on your return. Fortunately, about 75% of all IRS audits are “correspondence audits,” meaning the IRS asks you to submit documentation by mail (instead of face to face) to prove what you spent or earned. 

Action To Take: Collect Your Tax Info

Make a list, and cross off all documents as you locate them, and highlight any that you can’t find. Whether it’s online or not, clearly label the file where you’ve collected your forms and receipts for easy discovery later. 

Some of these documents might not apply to you, and depending on your personal tax situation, there may be other forms you’ll need to file your taxes. (If you don’t complete your own return, ask what documents you’ll need to provide to your accountant.)

Your list should include:

  • Last year’s tax return, complete with Social Security numbers for you, your spouse, and each of your dependents 
  • Information statements for income, such as W-2 forms from employers and 1099 forms for self-employment income, investments, or miscellaneous types of income (such as Social Security or unemployment benefits) 
  • Proof of any tax payments you made other than through withholding from your paychecks, such as estimated tax payments
  • Receipts for anything you spent on expenses that qualify as deductions 
  • Information statements for anything you paid for that might qualify for a tax deduction, such as property taxes, tuition and educational expenses, charitable contributions, and student loan interest 
  • Receipts for all business-related expenses if you’re self-employed

For tax year 2020, you can deduct up to $300 in charitable cash contributions even if you don’t itemize. 

You should receive information statements from the entities you did business with early in the year, typically by February 1. Contact the payer if you don’t receive one by then. 

Next Steps and More Resources

Unless you work with an accountant, you’ll want to choose the right tax preparation tool for filing taxes on your own.

  • The IRS provides numerous online resources to help you file correctly and decide whether you should prepare your own return. The Interactive Tax Assistant can answer many of your tax questions. Forms, calculators, and other tools are available as well, along with detailed instructions for preparing your tax return.
  • Keep track of important Federal Income Tax Deadlines for this year. For example, May 17, 2021, is the new tax filing deadline for individual taxpayers (extended by the IRS from April 15).
  • Learn how to decide whether you should hire a tax professional to help you file.