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The Beginner’s Guide to Filling Out a W-4

It’s no secret that the IRS excels at making things complicated. And when you’re busy learning the ropes of a new job, trying to fill out a 4-page W-4 form can be a huge hassle. It’s not a good idea to rush through it, though, because a small mistake now can mean withholding too much or too little of your salary for covering your taxes. There have also been several recent changes to the W-4, so you may need to make some adjustments to your current form on file.

Filling out a W-4 form can be a hassle — and mistakes can cost you. Here’s how to complete your W-4 in five easy steps.

Step 1: Enter your personal information
First, you’ll enter your personal information and indicate whether you are filing taxes as a single individual, a married partner filing jointly, or as the head of a household.

If you believe you are exempt from filing taxes, you may need to complete Step 1(a), Step 1(b), and Step 5.

If you are a single tax filer or married to a non-working spouse, have no dependents, have only one job and you are not claiming deductions or credits beyond the standard deduction, you can skip to Step 5.

Step 2: Multiple jobs or spouse works
Only complete Step 2 if you hold more than one job, or you are married and filing jointly and your spouse works. You’ll have three options here:

  1. Use the IRS’s online Tax Withholding Estimator to determine how much to withhold below in Step 4(c).

  2. Fill out the Multiple Jobs Worksheet, provided on page three of Form W-4, and enter the result in Step 4(c), as explained below. The IRS recommends filling out the worksheet on the W-4 form for only the job associated with the highest income of the household.

  3. You can check off this box on the W-4 form if there are only two jobs in total and both jobs have similar pay.

Step 3: Claim dependents (if applicable)
If you have multiple jobs, or you are married filing jointly and you and your spouse each have a job, you’ll need to complete Step 3 on the W-4 form for the highest-paying job.

Step 3 involves some math: If your income is $200,000 or less, or $400,000 or less if you are married and filing jointly, multiply each qualifying child under age 17 by $2,000 and each additional dependent by $500. Add up these numbers and list the total as indicated by Step 3 on the W-4.

Step 4: Make other adjustments (optional)
You may want to fill out Step 4 if you have multiple jobs, or you are married filing jointly and you and your spouse each have a job. Here, too, the IRS recommends filling out these lines on the W-4 form associated with the highest-paying job.

Follow the directions for lines 4(a) and 4(b) and then move on to line 4(c), which indicates the amount of additional tax you’d like withheld each pay period. If you are exempt from filing taxes, write “exempt” here.

Step 5: Sign here
You’ve filled out your W-4! Just sign and date the form and turn it into your employer. If you experience any major life changes in the future, be sure to update your W-4 as necessary.

W-4, done!

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