What Is a Simple Tax Return?

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A simple federal income tax return is one with almost no options. Prior to the 2018 tax year, the Internal Revenue Service offered two streamlined versions of its 1040 individual income tax return. The simplest was Form 1040-EZ, for taxpayers with very basic tax situations and usually the quickest refunds. While the 1040EZ form can still be used to file returns for tax years 2015 - 2017, beginning with the 2018 tax year, the 1040EZ form will no longer be used. Another option, the 1040-A, was also simplified but had more options for filing status and more opportunities to claim tax credits, and like the 1040EZ, will not be used beyond the 2018 tax year.

For the 2018 tax year and onwards, the IRS offers a revised Form 1040 or Form 1040-SR. The IRS also has simplified filing with e-file, an electronic method that was used in 2019 to file over 138 million tax returns for the 2018 tax year.

Simple Returns

The 1040-EZ is for an individual or married couple filing jointly, under age 65 with no taxpayer dependents and with taxable income under $100,000. You must be reporting income only from wages, salaries, tips, taxable scholarship or fellowship grants, unemployment compensation, or Alaska Permanent Fund dividends, and taxable interest not more than $1,500, with no mortgage interest or other itemized deductions. This is easiest to e-file, and if you don't qualify, the system will automatically tell you.

Is Simplest the Best?

The IRS advises taxpayers to use the simplest form for a specific situation but cautions that the simplest form may not always produce the best tax results. A young taxpayer with a student loan, for instance, will miss a deduction for interest with a 1040-EZ. A taxpayer contributing to an individual retirement account won't be able to deduct that contribution with a 1040-EZ.

Social Security

A taxpayer receiving Social Security benefits may use forms 1040 and 1040-A (for tax years prior to 2018). In addition to Social Security benefits, other types of income you can report on a 1040-A include:

  • wages, salaries and tips
  • interest and dividend income 
  • capital gains
  • IRA, pension and annuity distributions
  • unemployment compensation
  • Alaska permanent fund dividends.

Tips

  • You can't use form 1040-EZ to file your taxes if you have Social Security benefits to report – there's simply nowhere on the form to report it.

Electronic Options

A taxpayer with income under $69,000 can use an IRS Free File option to prepare and file a 1040-EZ, 1040A or current Form 1040. If your income exceeds $69,000, you can use Free File Fillable Forms instead, which is an electronic version of IRS forms. These can be used by taxpayers who want to prepare their own returns but e-file for faster refunds. These "fillable forms" look just like paper forms but do only basic math.