If bureaucracies are good at anything, it’s creating paperwork, and the IRS is the king of all bureaucracies, especially when it comes to tax forms. Most paperwork you’ll need to file your federal tax return can be completed and submitted electronically, but you’ll need to acquire a number of forms to get the job done. We’ll explain how to find and obtain the forms you need, how often the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) updates its forms, and options for filing your tax forms online.

Key Takeaways

  • There are four ways to find tax forms on the IRS website.
  • Downloading an online form and saving it to your hard drive is the way to avoid losing your entries if your browser crashes or you accidentally close it.
  • Learn the safety measures to prevent identity theft if you file online, as most now do.
  • You may be able to get free software to file electronically if you qualify for it.
  • Filing early reduces the risk of identity theft.
  • Employers, financial institutions, and others have deadlines by which they need to mail your tax forms or make them available electronically.

How to Find Tax Forms on the IRS Website

Finding tax forms on the IRS website is easy. You can go about it in one of four ways:

Option 1

  1. Go to IRS.gov.
  2. Mouse over “Forms and Instructions” in the horizontal menu bar and select one of the most popular tax forms.

Option 2

1. Go to IRS.gov.

2. Type the name of the form you need into the search bar on the right side of the horizontal menu bar.

Option 3

1. Go to IRS.gov.

2. Scroll down to “Forms and Instructions.”

3. If you see the name of the form you need, click on it. Otherwise, click on “Search Forms and Instructions.”

Option 4

1. Open your favorite search engine.

2. In the search bar, type the name of the form you’re looking for, then “site:irs.gov." For example, if you’re looking for form 1040, your search string would be “form 1040 site:irs.gov.”

Any of these options will ensure that you get a legitimate tax form directly from the IRS website. You can also complete the tax forms you need using tax prep software.

How Often the IRS Changes Its Tax Forms

The IRS has to update many of its forms annually. Even if the form’s content doesn’t change, the form needs to state the current year, so taxpayers can be confident they’re filing the correct paperwork and calculating the right amount of tax due. Sometimes the IRS updates its forms because of new IRS guidance, new IRS addresses or phone numbers, or the need to make a correction or clarification.

A big reason for tax form changes is new legislation, such as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. This legislation required the IRS to create new 1040 forms and new schedules. Marginal tax rates, standard deductions, itemized deductions, and more changed under the new law. Another major piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act, necessitated changes to tax forms because of the subsidies, penalties, and new taxes the law mandated.

Completing Online Tax Forms

In tax year 2018 the government changed Form 1040 and the supplemental forms many taxpayers file along with it. Instead of forms 1040, 1040-A, and 1040-EZ, there’s Form 1040 for most filers, plus a different form you can choose to file if you’re a senior: Form 1040-SR.

Taxpayers who take the standard deduction and have simple returns don’t need to file any other forms.

The IRS provides a fillable PDF of Form 1040 and Form 1040-SR online. You can type in your information, then print the form, but a safer option is to download it first, then save it to your hard drive as you fill it out, so you don’t lose your entries if your browser crashes or you accidentally close it. After filling out and printing the form, you'll sign it, attach copies of any required forms (W-2 being the most common), and mail it in.

This process is simple and inexpensive; you’ll need to pay for postage, preferably a method you can track to prove you submitted your return on time. If you’re due a refund, the IRS says it will process your payment within six to eight weeks for a paper return submitted by mail.

People who need to report information not included on Form 1040 (or 1040-SR) will need to submit additional schedules. These might include one or more of the following:

For a complete list, see "Schedules for Form 1040 and Form 1040-SR." You can fill out these schedules just as we described above for Form 1040.

Filing Your Tax Forms Electronically

Many people appreciate the convenience of filing their tax forms electronically. April 15 used to be the worst day of the year to visit the post office. Mind-numbing queues formed as everyone waited in line to get the envelopes containing their tax forms postmarked—proof they were mailed in the nick of time. Some people filled out special labels and paid a few extra bucks to get a tracking number and proof of delivery.

Today, the IRS and the tax software companies have made electronic filing, also called “e-file,” an attractive alternative. You never have to leave home to do it.

Is Filing Electronically Safe?

The appeal of electronic filing is obvious, but Is it safe? Your tax filing can contain some of the most sensitive data about you: where you live, how much you earn, how many dependents you have, your Social Security number, how high your medical expenses were, and how much you gained or lost from selling investments.

Can you trust the tax software companies and the government to have employed best-in-class security to protect your data both as it’s being transmitted and while it’s being stored? If you use online tax software, your information is also being stored in the cloud, creating another point of vulnerability.

For this reason, some people prefer to purchase downloadable software so that their data is stored only on their own computer. That way they are vulnerable to one less data breach possibility.

In this era of data breaches and identity theft, security and privacy questions are important to ask. The table below shows what security features online tax services provide as of January 2020 for the 2019 tax return season. Note that the absence of a feature in the table doesn’t necessarily mean the software provider doesn’t have it, just that the information wasn’t available on the company’s data security page. Also, while each service describes its encryption practices differently, all appear to be using appropriate methods.

Security and Fraud Prevention Features in Popular Tax Preparation Software, January 2020
Software Brand Multifactor Authentication Touch ID Encryption Login and Device Activity Account Change Email Notifications Physical Data Security External Audits and Risk Assessments
TurboTax yes yes SSL encryption that exceeds IRS standards yes yes not advertised not advertised
H&R Block yes not advertised data is bank-level encrypted when transferred from your computer to H&R Block and from H&R Block to IRS not advertised not advertised data centers, networks, and servers are physically secured yes
TaxAct yes not advertised industry-standard SSL protocol yes not advertised not advertised not advertised

Even with industry-best security practices, the truth, as H&R Block outlines in its privacy policy, is that “no method of transmission over the internet, or method of electronic storage, is 100% secure. Therefore, we cannot guarantee [your tax data’s] absolute security.”

Electronic Pitfalls to Avoid

If you do file your tax forms electronically, don’t complete them on a public computer, and don’t transmit your return over public WiFi.

Use a personal computer with antivirus and firewall software and a secure, password-protected private WiFi network, such as your home or work network. Don’t transmit your tax returns over an unsecured coffee shop, airplane, or library network.

Paper Returns Have Vulnerabilities, Too

It’s also important to consider how safe it is to submit your tax return by mail, however. Paper returns can be lost or stolen. They’re also more susceptible to error. Unfortunately, your private information is vulnerable no matter how you submit your return.

Certain forms can’t be e-filed no matter how you complete them. However, most people won’t need to file these forms. The most common circumstance when you might have to submit a paper return is if you need to file an amended return.

Besides the possible security risks—which may be outweighed by features such as convenience and receiving your refund faster—are there any other cons of filing your tax forms electronically?

Tax-Form Filing Fees

You can file your 2020 federal tax return for free if your income for the year was $72,000 or less. The IRS makes available a selection of tax software to use, including two Spanish-language programs.

If your income is above that level, the tax preparation software you use may charge you to complete and file your state and federal returns. The IRS and the state governments do not charge you a fee to e-file your tax return. The fee comes from the tax prep company.

Similarly, if you hire a professional tax preparer, they may pass on to you any e-file fees charged by the professional tax software used.

If you use the IRS’s Free File Fillable forms, you may be able to file electronically, or you may have to print and mail your return. It depends on which forms you are submitting, which supporting information you have to add to your forms, and which documents you’re required to submit along with your forms.

No matter what preparation method you use, though, the main cost associated with completing your tax returns (besides your time) will be the fee to use the preparation software, not the e-filing itself.

Should You File Early?

Many American taxpayers wait until the April 15 deadline to complete and file their taxes. However, if procrastination stresses you out—or if you’re expecting a refund and you want it as soon as possible—you can file your 2020 return as early as Feb. 12, 2021. 

That's a little later than usual, and the reason is important: If you haven't received the COVID-19-related economic stimulus check approved by Congress at the end of 2020, you can claim it on your 2020 return. 

Another reason to file early is to reduce the risk of someone stealing your identity to file a false return using your Social Security number and claim a fraudulent refund.

Where to Get Copies of Tax Forms Due to You

Before you can file, you’ll need tax forms from the financial institutions with which you have accounts. These forms report information such as how much interest you’ve earned on high-yield savings accounts and certificates of deposit, how much money you made or lost from selling investments, and the amount of distributions you’ve taken from your retirement accounts.

You’ll also need tax forms documenting your earned income and the taxes you’ve already paid. The most common of these is Form W-2; employees receive it from their employers. Freelancers and independent contractors should receive Form 1099-MISC from each client who has paid them $600 or more (the IRS calls this “nonemployee compensation”). You might also receive a 1099-MISC for certain other types of income, such as prize money.

In addition, you may receive forms documenting interest you’ve paid on a student loan or mortgage. This interest may be tax deductible, depending on your circumstances.

Traditionally, financial institutions, employers, and clients mailed paper copies of these forms to you. Today, it’s still common to receive these forms by mail, but it’s increasingly the case that you’ll need to retrieve them yourself by logging into your account online. Sometimes this service is optional, but other times it will be the only way you can get the forms you need.

Deadlines for Making Tax Forms Available to You

The IRS has established deadlines by which employers and financial institutions must mail you these forms or make them available electronically. Here are the deadlines for when you’re supposed to receive some of the most common forms people need to file their 2019 tax returns.

Dates may vary slightly from year to year. For example, for tax year 2020, the Jan. 31 deadline will move up to Feb. 1, because in 2021 Jan. 31 falls on a Sunday.

What to Do About Missing Tax Forms

If you don’t receive one or more of the forms you need, you’re not absolved of reporting that information on your tax return. Here’s how to handle this situation.

  1. Search your inbox. You might have received an email notification that a form was ready in your online account. A link to a secure portal to retrieve your form may have been emailed to you. Conversely, you might have misplaced an envelope you got in the mail.
  2. Log into your online account. See if the form is available there. From January through April most sites prominently display information about where to find your tax forms after logging into your account. Banking, investment, and loan interest forms are usually available online from major financial institutions.
  3. Contact the issuer. Email or call your financial institution, client, or other issuer to ask about the status of your missing form and the method used to send it to you. Ask for a replacement copy to be sent to you.
  4. File an extension. If you still don't have all the forms you need by April 15, you can file an extension of time to return. However, if you owe taxes, you must still pay what you owe by April 15 to avoid penalties, so make your best estimate. The extension only applies to your tax paperwork—your form 1040 and any others you’re required to submit.

If you file a paper return by mail, you’ll need to include copies of the forms issuers have sent you if they show taxes withheld. If you file electronically, you won’t have to.

The Bottom Line

Acquiring, organizing, and completing all the forms you need to prepare your tax return can be excruciating for all but the most enthusiastic administrative super-doers. But unless you’re among those who don’t have to file a tax return, it’s a task you must submit to if you don’t want to risk incurring penalties for failure to file. So set aside a few hours, put a sufficient quantity of your favorite snack within arm’s reach, and get it over with.