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If you need to file an individual federal tax return, you’ll use IRS Form 1040, 1040EZ or 1040A. (Not sure if you’re required to file? Take this quick IRS interview.) Each form serves the same purpose – to report your income and determine if you owe additional taxes or, better yet, get a refund – but the forms vary in complexity.

Form 1040EZ is, not surprisingly, the easiest to fill out. 1040A is longer and a bit more complex, and Form 1040 is the most detailed and challenging of the lot. While anyone can file Form 1040, you must meet certain requirements to use the shorter 1040EZ or 1040A forms. Here’s a quick rundown to help you choose the right form for your situation.

Form 1040EZ 

Use this form if you don’t plan to claim any tax credits or deductions.

IRS Form 1040EZ is the shortest of the 1040 forms and the easiest to fill out. You can take the standard deduction, but you won’t be able to itemize deductions, claim adjustments to income (such as contributions to an IRA) or claim any tax credits except for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EIC), which is available to certain low-income taxpayers. Also, you can't use 1040EZ if you have any income from self-employment, alimony, dividends or capital gains.

You can use Form 1040EZ if all of the following apply: 

  • You are filing as single or married filing jointly
  • Your taxable income is less than $100,000
  • You don’t claim any dependents
  • You don’t itemize deductions
  • You (and your spouse, if filing jointly) were under age 65 on January 1 of the year in which you file, and not legally blind at the end of the tax year for which you are filing
  • Your income comes only from wages, salaries, tips, taxable scholarship and fellowship grants, unemployment compensation or Alaska Permanent Fund dividends
  • Your taxable interest is $1,500 or less
  • Your earned tips (if any) are included in boxes 5 and 7 of your W-2
  • You don’t owe household employment taxes on wages you paid to a household employee
  • You’re not a debtor in a Chapter 11 bankruptcy case filed after Oct. 16, 2005

Form 1040A

Use this form if you plan to claim certain tax credits but not itemize your deductions.

IRS Form 1040A sits in between Form 1040EZ and the standard Form 1040 in terms of complexity and the amount of time it takes to complete. It offers more tax breaks than Form 1040EZ – including child care, education and retirement savings (e.g., contributions to your IRA). Still, it’s limited in terms of allowable deductions and credits compared to the standard 1040. If you can’t use Form 1040EZ – for example, because you have dependents to claim – you may be able to use 1040A if:

  • You are filing as single, married filing jointly or separately, qualifying widow or widower, or head of household
  • Your taxable income is less than $100,000
  • Your income is only from wages, salaries, tips, taxable scholarships and fellowship grants, interest, ordinary dividends, capital gains distributions, pensions, annuities, IRAs, unemployment compensation, taxable Social Security or railroad retirement benefits and Alaska Permanent Fund dividends
  • You don’t itemize deductions
  • You didn’t have an alternative minimum tax (AMT) adjustment on stock you acquired by exercising a stock option
  • Your only adjustments to income are deductions for an IRA, student loan interest, educator expenses and tuition and fees
  • The only credits you claim are for child and dependent care expenses, EIC, the elderly or the disabled, education, child tax credit, premium tax credit (for insurance purchased on the health insurance marketplace) or the retirement savings contribution credit

Form 1040 

Use this form if your earnings are larger, you have complex investments and/or you plan to claim tax credits and itemize deductions.

If you can’t use Form 1040EZ or 1040A, you’ll use IRS Form 1040. This is the most complex of the forms for individual tax filers, but it also gives you the most options for claiming deductions and credits. You should file Form 1040 if:

  • Your taxable income is greater than $100,000
  • You itemize deductions
  • You receive income from the sale of property
  • You have certain types of income, including that from unreported tips, self-employment, certain non-taxable distributions, a partnership or S corporation, or if you’re a beneficiary of an estate or trust
  • You owe taxes for the use of a household employee

The Bottom Line

As a rule of thumb, the longer the tax form, the more tax breaks and credits will be available. Filing Form 1040EZ or 1040A instead of Form 1040 may be faster and with fewer recordkeeping requirements, but you may miss out on money-saving tax credits and deductions. If you’re not sure which form is best for your situation, ask a tax professional or try the IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant, designed to help you determine the simplest form to use to file your federal income tax return. You may also want to read How to File a Tax Extension and Happily Married? File Taxes Separately!

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