Taxes can be confusing. We’re here to help. To find out what people’s most burning questions about taxes are, Money asked Google for a list of its top tax-related queries—and assembled the information you need.
1. When are taxes due?
It's April 18 this year. Usually, it’s the 15th — you can read why you get an extra three days here. (If you file for an extension, you get until Oct. 16 to file your return, because Oct. 15 is a Sunday. You must still pay what you estimate you owe by April 18, though.)
2. How to file taxes
This IRS page has links to online forms you can print as well as a locator tool where you can find an office if you prefer to pick up forms in person or don’t have access to a printer. You might also find tax forms at your local library or post office.
If you make less than $64,000, the IRS has a page where you can file your taxes electronically at no charge under the Free File program. If you plan to file with a simple form like a 1040A or 1040EZ, some tax preparation companies like TurboTax, H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and TaxAct have their own platforms you can use to do your taxes online for free.
If you’re not sure which form you should use, the IRS spells out the differences here. Not sure how to file state taxes? This IRS page has links to all of the state governments, including tax departments.
3. When can you file taxes?
The IRS began accepting electronic returns for 2016 on Jan. 23, 2017.
You technically have until 11:59:59 p.m. on April 18 to file your taxes if you’re filing online, according to TurboTax, but waiting until the last second is a bad idea: A pokey computer could cost you big in penalties. If you’re using U.S. mail, you have to have your return and payment postmarked by April 18. Some post offices stay open late for Tax Day; you can find out which ones have extended hours here.
If you (or your accountant) file your taxes electronically, you have the option of paying online using the IRS’s Electronic Funds Withdrawal function (which is free). You can also pay via credit or debit card (which will cost you a convenience fee of a bit under $3 if you use a debit card, or around 2% of the charge if you use a credit card).
4. How to file a tax extension
If you procrastinated and April 18 is looking like a long shot, experts say you should file for an extension. This doesn’t get you out of paying any taxes you owe by the deadline, but it gives you an extra six months to file. An extension will keep you from getting hit with a late-filing penalty of 5% of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month you’re late, up to 25%.
That's in addition to a late-payment penalty of 0.5% of the unpaid taxes for each month or part of a month—plus interest at a rate of the federal short-term interest rate plus 3%.
If you expect a refund, you obviously have an incentive to get your return in as soon as possible to get those dollars in your pocket. If you file for an extension thinking you’ll get a refund and instead find that you owe, you’ll have to tack on the late-payment charges.
Don’t forget about state taxes. A handful of states will automatically give you an extension if you request one through the IRS, while others require a separate request to that state’s tax department. In some cases, the rules are different depending on whether you owe money or are due a refund.
5. How much do you have to make to file taxes?
There are various thresholds, depending on your filing status, age, and the type of income you receive. For instance, if you’re single, under 65 and your income was below $10,350 last year, you generally don’t need to file federal taxes. This IRS tool can help you figure out if you need to file a tax return.
Even if appears you don't have to file, experts say it’s generally a good idea to fill in the blanks on a return and see what your bottom line would be. About 70% of Americans are expected to qualify for refunds this year, according to the IRS, but many people never file to collect. The average unclaimed refund is nearly $700. Especially for lower-income Americans, a number of credits and deductions could make you eligible for a refund.
6. How long to keep tax records
The IRS says you should hang onto your tax documents for three years; if you get audited, that’s generally the look-back period they’re allowed to cover. However, if they suspect fraud or underpayment of income tax, or if you’ve written off worthless securities, they can request up to seven years’ worth of tax records. Hang onto documents like receipts that justify deductions like business expenses, charitable donations and so on.
7. When is the last day to do taxes?
Yeah, there are clearly a lot of procrastinators out there. As explained above in No. 1, the filing deadline is pushed back a few days from the usual April 15 this year to the 18th. You have until midnight local time—but if you’re going to put it off that long you should consider just filing for an extension.
8. Is Social Security taxed?
It's possible. Depending on your income, up to 85% of Social Security benefits may be taxable. If you’re a single filer and your combined income—that is, adjusted gross income, nontaxable interest from municipal bonds and half of your Social Security benefits—is more than $25,000, you will have to pay taxes. If you’re married and file jointly, the threshold is $32,000.
9. How long does it take to get taxes back?
The answer this year might be “longer than usual.” To combat tax fraud, the IRS is taking extra time checking filers’ tax information if they claimed either the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. Under a new law, the agency is holding back refunds claiming those credits until at least Feb. 15, and people aren't likely to see those refunds until the end of February at the earliest. On top of that, “New identity theft and refund fraud safeguards put in place by the IRS and the states may mean some tax returns and refunds face additional review,” the agency warns. For everybody else, the IRS says refunds should be issued in its standard window of 21 days from the time it get your return.
10. Why do I owe taxes?
The first income tax in the U.S. was authorized by Congress in 1861 and levied the following year, to help pay for the Civil War, according to the Civil War Trust, but taxes have been around nearly as long as civilization itself. Historians have found tax records that go back to 6,000 B.C. in what is now Iraq, and the ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese cultures all had their own versions. In Biblical times, Roman emperor Caesar Augustus established rules around some personal and inheritance taxes that the English later used to create similar taxes centuries later, according to the Handbook on Tax Administration. Ironically, modern-day Italy has the lowest rate of income-tax compliance out of 10 major developed nations, with less than two-thirds of citizens giving the tax man his due.
And although plenty of Americans have argued in court that they shouldn't have to pay taxes, the IRS has a helpful 71-page paper that methodically debunks these claims, The Truth About Frivolous Tax Arguments, (which might be equally helpful as a cure for tax-season-induced insomnia.)