Important tax preparation documents to have before filing your own taxes

Young woman sitting at a desk, reviewing tax preparation documents needed for filing your own taxesImage: Young woman sitting at a desk, reviewing tax preparation documents needed for filing your own taxes

In a Nutshell

Filing your own taxes can save you money, and help you feel confident you’re getting every dollar you may be owed. But before you can begin, you need to have some important tax preparation documents in hand.
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This article was fact-checked by our editors and reviewed by Jennifer Samuel, senior product specialist for Credit Karma.

Even if you e-file (and you should definitely consider it), filing your own taxes involves a lot of papers.

To complete your federal income tax return, you need important documents that create a picture of your financial situation. From forms that show how much income you received during the tax year to receipts that verify charitable contributions you made, these documents will affect how much tax you’ll owe and how much refund you may receive.

Here’s a summary of some of the important tax preparation documents you will need in order to file your own taxes this year.

W-2 form

Chances are you’re already familiar with the W-2. Employers must provide them for full- or part-time employees with either of the following conditions:

  • Employees they paid $600 or more in a year, regardless of whether they withheld taxes.
  • Employees they withheld taxes from, regardless of how much they paid the employee.

The form, which must be furnished to you no later than Jan. 31, should report several things:

  • All the income the employer paid you.
  • The amount of federal or state income tax, Social Security and Medicare taxes the employer withheld on your behalf
  • Any deductions that affect your taxable income, like contributions you made to retirement accounts, dependent care accounts or health savings accounts

If you don’t receive your W-2 by the middle of February, call your employer. Make sure they have your correct address. If you still don’t have a W-2 by the end of February, call the IRS at 800-829-1040. The agency can send a letter to your employer on your behalf.

Mistakes on your W-2 can affect your tax return — contact your employer if you notice any errors on your form. Whether you’re using a paid tax preparer or filing your own taxes with tax preparation software, neither can change your W-2. Since the information on the form has already been transmitted to the IRS, you’ll have to ask your employer for any corrections.

1099 forms

This form has multiple versions that report different types of miscellaneous income. Some common 1099s you might see include the following:

  • If you worked as an independent contractor or were self-employed, anyone who paid you at least $600 should provide you with a 1099. It will show the total amount you received from that income source and any state or federal income tax they may have withheld from your pay.
  • 1099-G for unemployment income
  • 1099-R for pension and IRA distributions
  • 1099-S for real estate transactions
  • 1099-B for sale of stock
  • 1099-INT if you received at least $10 in interest or dividend income
  • 1099-C if you had cancelled debt of at least $600 that will count toward your income
  • SSA-1099 if you received Social Security income

Other income documents

So far we’ve talked about income you’ve earned, such as wages from an employer or income you made as an independent contractor. But there are also sources of unearned income, and those can also play a role in your federal income tax filing.

Some, such as gambling winnings, have their own form, while others, like alimony payments, don’t.

  • W-2G: If you had gambling winnings that had federal income tax withheld from them, you might get this form.
  • Form 5754: If you shared gambling winnings with someone else (bought a winning lottery ticket with coworkers, for example), the organization awarding the money will need to complete this form, as well as the W-2G.

Educational expenses documents

If you’re a college student, the parent of a student, or a graduate paying off student loan debt, your educational expenses can affect your tax situation. To qualify for education-related deductions and credits, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit, you’ll need to have the appropriate tax documents.

The 1098-T (a statement filed by educational institutions showing tuition that students pay) is one of the most important documents to have, says Joel Neuman of 1040 Express Accounting Services in Monroe, New York.

Interest you paid of $600 or more toward a qualifying student loan will appear on form 1098-E, while the 1098-T shows payments you made to a qualifying institution for tuition and other education-related expenses.

Health-related documents

You may be eligible for credits and deductions based on your healthcare costs throughout the year. Different types of costs appear on different forms.

Information about health insurance coverage appears on 1095 forms. Which 1095 you receive will depend on the type of health coverage you have and how you get it. For example, if you’re enrolled in a qualified health insurance plan through the Health Insurance Marketplace, you should receive a 1095-A. You may also receive a 1095-B (if you have minimum essential coverage) or a 1095-C (if you’re covered under an employer-sponsored plan).

The deadline for providing forms 1095-A, B and C is Jan. 31. If you’re expecting a 1095-A and didn’t have continuous coverage all year or enrolled through the Health Insurance Marketplace, the IRS states that you should wait to file your tax return until you receive the form, but there’s no need to wait for the 1095-B or C to file your return.

Documentation for charitable contributions

You may be able to deduct donations you made to charity, but you should have documentation to support your claim.

“Collect any checks you wrote out to charitable organizations,” advises Anthony Maniscalco, Vice President and CEO of 1-2-3 Payroll and HR Services in Holtsville, New York. “Charitable donations are a common deduction for individuals.”

Other documents that can help you show your charitable donations include credit card statements, receipts, email confirmations or a statement from the organization.

Statements or receipts from the charity should show the name of the organization, the date of your donation and the amount you contributed. Sometimes when you donate goods, such as used clothing or furniture, the charity will give you a blank receipt with just the name of the organization on it. It’s important to document the details of each item donated to support the amount you claim on your tax return.

Documents to show real estate taxes and mortgage loan interest

If you paid state or local real estate taxes on your home or interest on a mortgage, you may be able to claim deductions for these expenses. To do so, you’ll need supporting documents. Mortgage companies will generally send you a Form 1098 showing how much interest you paid on your home loan during the year. If you pay your property taxes through an escrow account with your mortgage company, that amount of property tax paid to the taxing authority will also generally appear on the 1098.

If you didn’t pay your taxes through an escrow account, you can use your property tax bills to determine the amount to deduct.

Business expenses documentation

If you’re self-employed, you can deduct a number of business-related expenses that you incur throughout the year. You’ll need documentation to support those deductions. This paperwork can include receipts, account statements or credit card statements showing expenses you incurred in carrying out your business, as well as canceled checks that show proof of payment, invoices, deposit receipts and real estate closing statements.

If you use your personal vehicle for business purposes, make sure to separately track your business miles and personal miles, so you have that information ready at tax time. Business use of home is another common deduction for self-employed people who use a part of their home for business purposes. The requirements for the home office deduction are stringent, so carefully check that you qualify. Special rules apply to daycare providers, so be sure to check out IRS Publication 587 if you’re claiming this deduction.

What to do if you’re missing tax documents

A missing document doesn’t mean you shouldn’t file your tax return and pay any tax you owe by the April 17 deadline. You can always estimate and pay your taxes, even if you don’t have all your tax documents. If a missing document causes the IRS to reject your e-filed return, you can always print the updated return and mail it. However, missing the deadline to pay your taxes will likely mean facing penalties and interest, which is why it’s important to pay estimated taxes on time, even if you’re missing documentation. You can file an amended return later when you finally have the missing document.

Bottom line

Even though free online tax preparation services can eliminate the need to handle paper tax returns, many of the documents you need to file your own taxes still come in paper form. Whether you’re dealing with paper or convenient e-versions, it’s important to have all the tax documents you need on hand before you begin preparing your tax return.

Jennifer Samuel, senior tax product specialist for Credit Karma, has more than a decade of experience in the tax preparation industry, including work as a tax analyst and tax preparation professional. She holds a bachelor’s degree in accounting from Saint Leo University. You can find her on LinkedIn.