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- Updated: September 20, 2022
- This page features 19 Cited Research Articles
How Do Taxes Work?
In the U.S., federal income tax is a progressive tax system. Effectively, the more you make, the larger the percentage of your income you pay in taxes. Your income level puts you into one of seven tax brackets. The percentage at which your income is taxed is called your tax rate.
Each year, new tax laws change how much you have to pay. They also offer new tax breaks, including tax deductions, tax credits and tax exemptions.
Since 2020, many changes to the federal tax code have been made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil it has fueled.
Other issues affecting the 2022 income tax season are underfunding and short staffing at the Internal Revenue Service, the federal agency that collects and processes income taxes.
“I would recommend people file electronically, absolutely file electronically if you’re expecting a refund,” Donald Williamson, CPA and director of the master’s in taxation program at American University’s Kogod School of Business, told Annuity.org. “The IRS has 24 million pieces of mail to open and, if you file a paper return, you’re in for a long wait.”
According to Williamson, the backlog of paper returns is so great in 2022 that there are still people waiting on refunds from their 2020 income tax returns.
2022 Tax Season Deadlines
For most individuals, April is chock-full of income tax deadlines — not just for filing your taxes, but also for squaring up contributions to and withdrawals from your retirement accounts for tax purposes.
Typically, the federal income tax filing deadline is April 15. In 2022, that falls on Emancipation Day — a local holiday in Washington, D.C. — and federal offices including the IRS will be closed. So, for most of the country, the deadline shifts to the next business day, Monday, April 18.
But Patriots’ Day — a state holiday in Maine and Massachusetts — falls on that Monday, so filers in those two states have a Tuesday, April 19 deadline.
Income Thresholds: Who Has To File Income Taxes?
Not everyone has to file an income tax return every year. You may not be required to file taxes if your income for the year falls below certain thresholds.
These thresholds vary based on your age and filing status.
In most cases, if your income was entirely from Social Security benefits, you shouldn’t have to file a tax return. But there are some exceptions.
The IRS website has a tool to help you decide if you need to file a tax return.
Tax Season 2022: Biggest Changes to 2021 Taxes
There are several changes to be aware of when you file your taxes in 2022 — many in response to the pandemic.
“There were expansions in the tax code designed to help the U.S. economy and families recover from the pandemic,” Kathy Pickering, chief tax officer of H&R Block, said in a statement.
There are also some new tax breaks that could let you reduce your tax bill or increase your refund.
Child Tax Credit Confusion
The Child Tax Credit (CTC) — and confusion surrounding advance payments of the credit that were distributed in 2021 — may be the biggest surprise for a lot of tax filers.
”The Child Tax Credit is not income, but if you got the money for the credit ahead of time, you can’t turn around and claim the credit for your children on your tax return,” Williamson said.
If your adjusted gross income (AGI) was under $400,000 and you qualified for the CTC, you may have received $1,400 in advance payments. You’ll have to report this. But if you didn’t receive the advance — and were entitled to it — you can claim it on your tax return.
“There’s going to be a bunch of people that are going to claim this credit, but who already got the money,” Williamson said, adding that this could lead to a “computational nightmare” when people do their taxes.
Claim Standard Deduction and Charitable Contributions
You’ll be able to claim charitable contributions on your 2021 federal income tax return, even if you take the standard deduction. In the past, you could only claim a deduction for charitable contributions if you itemized your deductions.
“Now, even if you’re claiming the standard deduction, you’re also able to claim up to $300 for a charitable cash contribution, and if you’re married filing jointly, it’s up to $600,” Lisa Greene-Lewis, CPA and tax expert for TurboTax, explained.
This big change could cut the tax bill for up to 90% of taxpayers who currently take the standard deduction — if they donated to charity in 2021.“Now, even if you’re claiming the standard deduction, you’re also able to claim up to $300 for a charitable cash contribution, and if you're married filing jointly, it's up to $600.”
Cash contributions include donations made by cash, check and credit or debit cards, as well as any out-of-pocket expenses you were not reimbursed for while volunteering for a qualifying charity. It does not include the value of your volunteer services, securities or other property.
Changes to the Earned Income Tax Credit
A wider range of people — including those without children — will be eligible for more money under the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) on their 2021 tax returns.
“Not only did the IRS expand the age and redefine the requirements, they also increased the amount a person without children could receive from about $500 to about $1,500,” Andy Phillips, director of the H&R Block Tax Institute, told Annuity.org.
That means people who qualify for the EITC may get a refund of up to $6,782 this year. It also means people who may not have qualified for the EITC in past years — and may not have bothered to file for it — may be eligible this year.“Not only did the IRS expand the age and redefine the requirements, they also increased the amount a person without children could receive from about $500 to about $1,500.”
Report Cryptocurrency Transactions
The front page of Form 1040 now asks whether you’ve engaged in any crypto transactions — such as buying or selling Bitcoin.
The federal cryptocurrency tax rate is the same as the capital gains tax rate. But reporting dividends and interest includes Form 1099 reporting.
“For crypto, there’s nothing like that, but federal authorities are trying to establish that kind of reporting for crypto,” Williamson said. “The IRS is really concerned that there are a lot of crypto transactions out there that aren’t being reported.”
What You Need To File Your 2021 Tax Return
Maintaining tax records is a cornerstone personal finance skill. You should receive the forms and tax documents you’ll need to file your tax return ahead of tax season, between December and the end of January. You’ll need to save the paperwork until you’ve received all that you are expecting before beginning your tax return.
Many of these forms or documents are new this year.
“Whether you have been a gig worker who had never received a 1099 Form before or are new to the industry, almost every gig worker will be receiving a 1099-K starting with tax year 2022,” Phillips said in a statement.Common Documents Needed To File Tax ReturnsInvesting for Beginners
- Form W-2
- Wage and Tax Statement from your employer(s).
- Form 1099-INT
- To report interest income — often from a bank account.
- Form 1099-K, Form 1099-NEC and Form 1099-MISC
- Income statements for gig economy work.
- Form 1099-E
- To report interest paid on student loans.
- Form 1098
- Mortgage Interest Statement for mortgage interest of $600 or more.
- Charitable Contribution Statements
- Written acknowledgments required to substantiate charitable contributions of $250 or more.
- Investment Income Statements
- Statements for interest, dividends, capital gains and other types of distributions including mutual fund distributions. Taxpayers who sell stocks or mutual funds receive Form 1099-B and taxpayers who receive distributions from an IRA receive Form 1099-R.
Additionally, Letters 6419 and 6475 are new for your 2021 taxes. Both can affect your refund or tax liability if you were eligible for or received certain COVID-19 tax relief.New COVID-19 Relief Forms
- Letter 6419
- Titled “Your 2021 Economic Impact Payment” and used to reconcile advance CTC payments, Letter 6419 can help you get the rest of your 2021 CTC payments — if you haven’t already received them. The letter lists the total amount of advance CTC payments you received in 2021, along with the number of qualifying children used to calculate the advance payments.
- Letter 6475
- Titled “Your 2021 Economic Impact Payment” and used to determine your eligibility for the Recovery Rebate credit, Letter 6475 only applies to the third round of Economic Impact Payments issued between March and Dec. 2021.
These letters can affect your refund and can help you or your tax preparer make sure you are receiving the tax relief for which you are eligible.
“You want to make sure you enter the correct amount that you received so that you don’t have any processing delays — and you also may be eligible for more Child Tax Credit,” Greene-Lewis told Annuity.org.
Steps for Filing Your Taxes
Once you have your forms and records from the previous year compiled, most people can file their taxes in five basic steps.
You’ll have to make decisions each step of the way that can affect the amount of your tax bill or refund. Some decisions can mean it will take you longer to get a refund that you are due.
This guide will help you decide which choices for filing your taxes are best for you.
Determining Your Filing Status
It’s important to choose the correct filing status when preparing your taxes. The status you select will affect your tax bill or any refund.
Depending on your particular situation, you may qualify for multiple statuses. In that case, choose the status that allows you to pay the least amount of tax.Filing Statuses
- Typically applies if you are not married — including if you are divorced or legally separated under your state’s law.
- Married Filing Jointly
- This applies if you are married and you and your spouse file a joint return.
- Married Filing Separately
- If you are married, you and your spouse can choose to each file your own separate returns. This can sometimes mean you’ll pay less tax than if you filed jointly. It can help to prepare your returns both ways to see which route saves you the most money.
- Head of Household
- This status typically applies if you are not married, but there are some qualifications you have to meet. Qualifications include having paid more than half the cost of keeping up a home for yourself and at least one qualifying person. It’s important to check the IRS rules for head of household to make sure you qualify before claiming this status.
- Qualifying Widow or Widower
- This filing status entitles you to use joint return tax rates and the highest standard deduction amount. You can use this status for two years following the year your spouse died. To claim this status, you must meet certain other requirements, including claiming a child, stepchild or adopted child as your dependent.
When choosing your filing status, it’s important to remember that your marital status on Dec. 31 is your status for the entire tax year.Advertisement
Standard vs. Itemized Deductions
The standard deduction is a flat amount set by the IRS. To claim it, you simply have to enter the correct amount of the deduction on your tax return. The standard deduction is different for each filing status.Standard Deduction by Filing Status, 2021 Tax Returns
- Single or married filing separately: $12,550
- Married filing jointly or qualifying widow(er): $25,100
- Head of household: $18,800
Itemized deductions are the amount you spent on deductible expenses allowed by the IRS. These reduce your AGI, meaning you’ll pay taxes on a smaller amount of your income.
It makes sense to itemize your deductions if the total of your deductions is more than the standard deduction for your filing status.
This may happen if you have high out-of-pocket medical expenses, large amounts of interest payments on your mortgage, uninsured theft or casualty losses or if you claim other qualified deductions.
Choosing How To Prepare and File Your Taxes
There are three major ways to prepare your taxes and two options for filing your completed return.
You can file electronically yourself if you use tax software or file online. Your accountant or other tax preparer can file electronically for you if you choose to use in-person tax preparation.
Preparing Your Taxes
Determining on the best way to fill out your tax forms accurately and completely depends largely on how complicated your finances are.Options for Preparing Your Taxes
- Do It Yourself
- This means sitting down with your records and filling out a paper Form 1040 by hand. Unless you have extremely simple finances, this can be difficult. But if you have income from one employer, take the standard deduction and have no major life changes, this option may work for you.
- File On Your Computer
- This route is an option if you have more complex finances. Software companies such as TurboTax, TaxCut and TaxAct provide you with up-to-date prompts to make sure you don’t miss savings or fail to report income that could cost you. They can provide live, human assistance should you need it. There are also free online options from software companies and the IRS Free File tool if your income fits certain criteria.
- Sit With a Tax Professional
- If your finances are complicated — or if you prefer dealing with a human in person — this may be the best route to consider. A tax accountant or other tax professional can deal with major life changes or help you make sense of lengthy lists of itemized deductions. They can often find tax savings unique to your situation.
Electronic Filing Favored Over Mail in 2022
Because of the backlog of over 24 million unprocessed returns at the IRS — including tax returns from the previous year — tax experts have been nearly universal in warning people to avoid submitting their tax returns through the mail in 2022.
“Processing paper filed tax returns is going to be very difficult this year,” Greg Kling, associate professor of the practice of accounting at USC’s Leventhal School of Accounting, said.
About 9.7 million paper returns from the 2021 tax season have yet to be processed as of late January, according to the Washington Post. Another 4.1 million returns were held up by errors in COVID-19 stimulus payments, pandemic relief complications or because of other issues.
“My recommendation is to be patient and, when possible, electronically file your return,” Kling said. “And if there’s a refund, do have that electronically deposited because the IRS is already saying there could be substantial delays with paper returns and paper refund checks.”
About 75% of taxpayers qualified for a tax refund in each of the past two years, according to TurboTax’s Greene-Lewis, with the average refund being worth $2,700.Greg Kling, CPA, MST Associate Professor of the Practice of Accounting Leventhal School of Accounting, University of Southern California
Greg Kling is a full-time lecturer specializing in individual, corporate and real estate taxation at USC’s Leventhal School of Accounting. As a partner at Kling & Pathak LLP prior to its acquisition by a Big Four accounting firm, he specialized in tax planning and tax compliance.
- The IRS reported a backlog of nearly 24 million tax returns from last year just as it was starting to accept this year’s tax returns. How does that compare to past years?
I've never seen it like this before and I think it's a bunch of different things hitting at the same time.
On top of the list, we had some major COVID-19 effects over the last two years that they were trying to deal with. Another was IRS staff working remotely because of the pandemic. And on top of all that, the IRS was underfunded. I think those three things just really knocked the IRS for a loop.
- We’ve seen the pandemic affect tax law through credits, stimulus payments and other economic impact for two years now. Is it confusing taxpayers and confounding tax filings in the 2022 tax season?
We haven't had a far-reaching pandemic like this in a hundred years. As far as affecting people's income taxes when they file this year, I think in 2021 people have a better sense of what they need to do. Definitely for 2020, when people filed their taxes, there were some major changes people were trying to digest. But for 2021, people have a better sense of it. There are some very, very profound changes in a very short period that people are definitely trying to digest.
- Normally, now is a good time to ask how people can make changes or plan strategies to reduce their tax bills for the next year. Do you have any suggestions on that front?
Normally we would be talking about a new tax law right now. And I would say, "OK, here are all the new changes for 2022 that you need to be aware of."
But we don't have a major tax law change for next year. And right now, tax discussions in Congress feel like they're back at ground zero.
So, when I think about the 2021 tax law — the current tax law — there's really nothing that jumps out at me to say, "Here's what jumps out at me to reduce your tax bill next year."
Really, we're all focused on what 2022 is going to look like — what type of tax law, ultimately is going to be passed this year — and only then can we look at that to see what some things are to think about in order to save taxes and be ready for next year's tax filing season.
Getting Your Tax Refund or Paying the IRS
The IRS estimates that refunds will start arriving on March 1 for early electronic filers.
According to Williamson, you should typically receive your refund within 45 days if you file it electronically. If not, you can check the status of your refund on the IRS Where’s My Refund? webpage.What You’ll Need To Check Your Refund’s Status
- Your Social Security Number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)
- Your filing status
- The exact amount of your refund
You should not call the IRS unless it’s been 21 days or more since you filed your refund electronically or if the Where’s My Refund? website instructs you to call.
The IRS also reports that it will take over 21 days to issue refunds if your tax return included the Recovery Rebate Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit or additional Child Tax Credits.
If you owe taxes, the IRS offers several payment options. You can pay your tax bill immediately, later in one lump sum or arrange installment payments.Federal Income Tax Payment Options
- Electronic Funds Withdrawal
- Pay using your linked bank account when you e-file.
- Direct Pay
- Automatically pay from a checking or savings account.
- Credit or Debit Card
- Pay using debit or credit card online, by phone or using a mobile device.
- Pay Cash
- Pay cash through visiting an IRS participating retail partner.
- Monthly Installment Payments
- Installment payments are valid only if you have filed all tax returns first and qualify for an installment plan through the IRS Online Payment Agreement.
In some cases, your tax return may be audited. This does not automatically mean that there is a problem with your tax return. Many times, it’s simply a review to make sure your accounts and information were reported correctly.
The IRS selects some returns randomly based on a statistical formula and computer selections. Others may be audited to make sure that the information in their returns matches information provided by business partners or investors.
2021 Tax Brackets and Tax Rates
Progressive rates are set using tax brackets. A tax bracket is a range of income taxed at a certain rate.
The tax bracket within which your taxable income falls — along with your filing status — determines the tax rate you will pay on each portion of your income.2021 Tax Rates and Tax Brackets by Filing Status
TAX RATE SINGLE HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD MARRIED FILING JOINTLY & QUALIFYING WIDOW(ER) MARRIED FILING SEPARATELY 10% $0 to $9,950 $0 to $14,200 $0 to $19,900 $0 to $9,950 12% $9,951 to $40,525 $14,201 to $54,200 $19,901 to $81,050 $9,951 to $40,525 22% $40,526 to $86,375 $54,201 to $86,350 $81,051 to $172,750 $40,526 to $86,375 24% $86,376 to $164,925 $86,351 to $164,900 $172,751 to $329,850 $86,376 to $164,925 32% $164,926 to $209,425 $164,901 to $209,400 $329,851 to $418,850 $164,926 to $209,425 35% $209,426 to $523,600 $209,401 to $523,600 $418,851 to $628,300 $209,426 to $314,150 35% More than $523,600 More than $523,600 More than $628,300 More than $314,150Source: Internal Revenue Service
Tax brackets are adjusted each year based on inflation. This means the top end of your income may have shifted into a new tax bracket since you last filed taxes. Receiving a raise in the past year may also mean that the upper end of your income moved into a higher bracket.
How Your Taxes Are Calculated
If you are in a particular tax bracket, it doesn’t mean that you will pay that rate on all of your income. Each part of your income is taxed on the rate for that amount of your total income.
For example, if you make $42,000 and file under single status, you’d be in the 22% bracket. But you’d pay only 10% on the first $9,950 of your income, 12% on the next $9,951 to $40,525 of your income and 22% only on your income over that.
Tax Deductions vs. Tax Credits
Tax deductions and tax credits both reduce how much you have to pay in income taxes — but in different ways.Differences Between Tax Deductions and Tax Credit
- Tax Deduction
- A tax deduction lowers your taxable income which, in turn, can lower the tax rate used to determine how much you have to pay in taxes. The benefit of a tax deduction depends on your tax rate. Tax deductions can give you a larger refund on the money withheld from your paycheck.
- Tax Credit
- A tax credit is a reduction of your tax bill by a specific dollar amount. Because they directly lower the amount of taxes you owe, they are generally more favorable than tax deductions. Tax credits can be refundable, partially refundable or nonrefundable. While nonrefundable tax credits can reduce your tax bill to zero, refundable tax credits can provide you with a tax refund.
You may be eligible to claim certain deductions, credits or both. If you have to choose between one or the other, you need to carefully consider which will be more beneficial to you. The choice can depend on your income. Calculate what each deduction will save you, or consult a tax professional.
Standard vs. Itemized Deductions
You have the choice of taking a standard deduction or itemizing your deductions when filing your taxes. You should choose the method that saves you the most on your tax bill or maximizes your refund.Differences Between Standard and Itemized Deductions
- Standard Deduction
- The standard deduction for the 2021 tax year reduces your taxable income by $12,550 for single filers and married filing separately, $25,100 for joint filers and $18,800 for those filing as head of household.
- Itemized deductions
- When itemizing deductions, the IRS determines the types of expenses you are allowed to claim. You can calculate the amount of your itemized deductions by using Schedule A (Form 1040) from the IRS. You will want to make sure that your qualified deductions add up to more than the standard deduction before deciding to itemize.
An estimated 90% of tax filers have chosen the standard deduction since 2017 tax law made itemized deductions less attractive to most taxpayers, according to the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. Prior to the change, the Center estimated that only 70% of tax filers opted for the standard deduction.
Understanding State Income Taxes
State income taxes vary widely from state to state. States are free to set their own tax rates and tax brackets, and they choose what types of income to tax. Some states decide not to tax any income at all.State Income Tax Facts
- 43 states and the District of Columbia have some type of income tax.
- 7 states do not levy any state income taxes: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
It’s typically best practice to file your state income taxes at the same time as your federal income taxes, but some states may have a later filing deadline than the federal deadlines.
You can check for specifics on deadlines, like where to obtain forms and how and where to file your state income taxes, through your state’s tax agency.
Tax Expert, TurboTaxLisa Greene-Lewis, CPALisa Greene-Lewis is a CPA and tax expert for TurboTax who has more than 20 years of experience in tax preparation. She has an extensive background in interpreting tax laws and helping clients better understand those laws and save money on their taxes. She has contributed to articles on national and local news sources including US News & World Report and the Huffington Post.
Associate Professor of the Practice of Accounting, Leventhal School of Accounting, University of Southern CaliforniaGreg Kling, CPA, MSTGreg Kling was a partner at Kling & Pathak LLP prior to its acquisition by a Big Four accounting firm. His professional background includes tax planning and tax compliance. He is a full-time lecturer specializing in individual, corporate and real estate taxation. Kling received his bachelor’s degree in business administration (accounting) from the University of California, Berkeley and his master’s degree in taxation from Golden State University.
Director, Agency and Industry Relations and Virtual Tax Services, The Tax Institute at H&R BlockAndy Phillips, JD, LL.MSince 2018, Andy Phillips has served in a newly created role focused on H&R Block’s regulatory engagement efforts, with a specific focus on cybersecurity and modernization of the tax ecosystem. The Tax Institute consists of tax experts, including enrolled agents, CPAs and tax attorneys who study changes in tax laws to support H&R Block’s clients, tax professionals and products for both professional and do-it-yourself tax preparation.
Chief Tax Officer, H&R BlockKathy Pickering, EAKathy Pickering leads H&R Block’s relationship management strategy with the IRS and state tax agencies. She is responsible for the firm’s strategic direction and management of The Tax Institute’s team of enrolled agents, CPAs and tax attorneys. Pickering serves on the boards of several associations within the tax industry, including as chair of the Council for Electronic Revenue Communication Advancement.
Director, Master’s of Science in Taxation Program, Kogod School of Business, American UniversityDonald Williamson, MBA, JD, LL.M, CPADonald Williamson is the Kogod Eminent Professor of Taxation and teaches multiple subjects related to taxation. He is also director of the Master’s of Science in Taxation degree program and the executive director of the Kogod Tax Center, a research institute focusing upon small business interests. He previously served as a senior manager for international taxation at KPMG in Washington, D.C. Williamson holds MBA and JD degrees from Cornell Univesrity and has published over 75 articles in professional and academic journals.
Connect With a Financial Advisor InstantlyPlease seek the advice of a qualified professional before making financial decisions.Last Modified: September 20, 2022Advertisement
19 Cited Research Articles
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