Personal Finance

Everything You Need to Know About Filing Your 2021 Tax Returns

One of the best ways to get ready for tax-preparation is by knowing the rules ahead of time. That’s what we’re going to cover in this guide.

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Though it may only seem like last year, which it was, the 2022 tax season is upon us. It’s never too soon to begin preparing for the storm that lies ahead. After all, the better prepared you are, the less difficult filing your taxes will be.

The information in this guide is taken largely from the IRS Form 1040 Instructions released on October 22, 2021, for taxes filed in April of 2022.

Related: Cash App Taxes Review.

Let’s start with the major tax changes for 2021

Fortunately, there haven’t been any major changes from 2020 to 2021. But there have been minor changes in the specific numbers, and some special circumstances related to COVID-19.

Economic impact payments (CARES Act). If you received this payment in 2021, remember that it is not taxable, but it will reduce your recovery rebate credit. To claim the recovery rebate credit, you must file a 2021 tax return, even you don’t ordinarily file a return. The IRS has information on how you can figure out the credit.

Tuition and Fees Deduction: This is no longer available after 2020. Instead, the income limitation for the lifetime learning credit has been increased.

Charitable contributions. New regulations for the tax year 2021 permit taxpayers to qualify for a deduction of charitable contributions for up to $600, even if you don’t itemize your deductions.

Standard deductions increased. The standard deductions have been increased for all filers.

Tax Filing StatusDeduction
Single or married filing jointly$12,550
Married, filing jointly or qualifying widower$25,100
Head of household$18,800

Child tax credit. The child tax credit has been increased for 2021. Depending on your AGI, you could qualify for a credit of up to $3,600 for a child under the age of 6, and up to $3,000 for a child between 6 and 18.

IRS Free File: The IRS is accepting 2021 tax returns for anyone with an AGI of $73,000 or less.

Related: TurboTax Review

Do you need to file a 2021 income tax return?

Below are the tax threshold amounts for 2021. However, read a bit further down for additional situations where you may still need to file, even if your income is below the thresholds. In each case, the standard deduction has increased over 2020.

If your gross income is above these thresholds, you need to file a tax return.

Even if your income is below these thresholds, you may still need to file a return if any of the situations below apply to you:

  • You had at least $400 in self-employment income
  • You owe household employment taxes
  • Social Security and Medicare taxes are owed on unreported tip income
  • You received a distribution from a medical savings account (MSA) or a health savings account (HSA)
  • You received an advance payment on the Premium Tax Credit
  • Expect to qualify for the earned income tax credit (EIC)
  • You had wages of $108.28 or more from a church or qualified church-controlled organization that is exempt from employer Social Security and Medicare tax.
  • If for any reason you may be subject to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT).
  • You are subject to additional tax on a qualified retirement plan, including an IRA

If you’re still not sure whether or not you need to file a return, you can use the Do I Need to File a Return tool offered by the IRS.

Related: FreeTaxUSA Review

How do you know if your child may be subject to the Kiddie Tax?

The Kiddie Tax applies only if your child has investment income that exceeds certain thresholds. It only applies to dependents who are either under the age of 19, or are full-time students under the age of 24.

Earned income limits for your child or children are the same as they are for adults. But if your child has significant investment income, the Kiddie Tax may come into play. That’s true even if his or her earned income doesn’t rise to the level of needing to file a return.

Below are the thresholds for 2021:

  • First $2,200 no tax due (unearned income exemption)
  • Above $2,200 income taxed at the child’s rate

This is a change that was implemented as part of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Previously, a child’s unearned income would have been taxed at the parents’ rate if it exceeded $2,200, which would have been a higher rate than the child’s. But now the parents’ tax rate no longer matters.

You might be able to report your child’s interest, dividends and capital gains distributions on your return. If you do that, your child won’t have to file a tax return, but it could affect your AGI.

Important 2021/2022 tax dates to be aware of

Below are important dates for filing your 2021 income tax return, as well as additional dates that may be important for filing your 2022 return next year:

April 18, 2022: First quarter federal income tax estimate due for the 2022 tax year

April 18, 2022: Deadline for filing 2021 Individual Income Tax returns—the due date falls on a Monday this year.

April 19, 2022: Deadline for filing 2021 Individual Income Tax returns if you live in Maine or Massachusetts. Maine and Massachusetts get an extra day due to the Patriot’s Day holiday.

April 15, 2021: Last day to make a 2020 IRA contribution (Keogh and SEP contributions can be made as late as October 15, 2021, if you file for an extension)

May 16, 2022: Victims of winter storms in Tennessee, Illinois and Kentucky get an extension to file their taxes, as well Colorado residents who suffered from wildfires and winds.

June 15, 2022: Second quarter federal income tax estimate due for the 2022 tax year

September 15, 2022: Third quarter federal income tax estimate due for the 2022 tax year

October 17, 2021: Extended individual income tax return due for 2021

January 17, 2023: Fourth quarter federal income tax estimate due for the 2021 tax year

Retirement plan contribution deadlines vary according to the type of plan you participate in. The final contribution due dates for various plans are as follows:

IRAs: Your contribution must be made by April 18, 2022.

Keogh and SEP IRAs Contributions can be made as late as October 17, 2022, as long as you have filed for an extension on your taxes by April 18.

Employer-sponsored 401(k) and 403(b) plans Contributions were required to be made by December 31, 2021, for 2022.

Related: Best Free Tax Software

What kinds of income are taxable?

The most common forms of taxable income include:

  • Wages and salaries
  • Income from self-employment
  • Tips and gratuities
  • Unemployment benefits
  • Moving expense reimbursements
  • Canceled or forgiven debt
  • Alimony (which is only includable pursuant to a divorce decree executed before December 31, 2018)
  • Income from bartering arrangements
  • Gambling winnings
  • Pension, annuity, and retirement plan income
  • Social Security benefits
  • Interest and dividends
  • Capital gains on the sale of investments or investment securities

Income sources that are NOT taxable include:

  • Child support
  • Alimony received pursuant to a divorce decree executed after December 31, 2018
  • Insurance proceeds received from a policy on which you paid the premiums (they may be taxable if the premiums were paid by another party, like your employer)
  • Veterans benefits
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)
  • Meals and lodging for the convenience of your employer

Related: H&R Block Review

What you’ll need to file your 2021 income tax return

Gathering all the necessary documentation to file your income tax return is probably the most complicated part of the process. But once you have all the documentation you need in one place, it’s just a matter of filling in the blanks, at least if you’re using tax preparation software.

Basic information you’ll need to have available includes:

  • Complete copies of your 2020 income tax return. You may need this to provide certain information, particularly any carryforward numbers, such as those related to business losses or capital loss carryforwards.
  • Social Security numbers for you, your spouse (if you’re married filing jointly or separately), as well as each of your children or other dependents.
  • Your ex-spouse’s Social Security number if you receive or pay alimony or child support.

Income documentation you’ll need to prepare your return includes:

  • W2s from any employment sources
  • Income information for your dependent children (W2s, 1099s, etc.)
  • 1099-MISC for additional income for which income taxes were not withheld (like contract, gig, or freelance income)
  • 1099s reporting Social Security income, interest and dividends; pension, IRA or annuity income; state income tax refund or unemployment insurance; reporting the sale of stock or other securities; or cancellation/forgiveness of debt income
  • K-1s reporting partnership or S-Corporation income
  • W-2G reporting gambling winnings (you should also have records proving gambling expenses)
  • Documentation of alimony received, including the Social Security number of the payee
  • If you’re self-employed, a complete accounting of all your business income and expenses
  • Evidence of rental income received if you own investment property

Related: What to do if You are Missing a Tax Form

Documentation you’ll need for tax-deductible expenses

As noted earlier, far fewer people will be able to itemize their deductions under the new tax law. But if you think you still can, you’ll need to gather the following documents:

  • 1098 reporting mortgage interest and property taxes paid, educational expenses, and student loan interest paid
  • Statements from charities reporting contributions
  • 1095-A, 1095-B, or 1095-C, reporting health insurance premiums paid, and to whom
  • Various forms 5498 reporting IRA, HSA or ESA payments made during the year
  • Home office information (if you plan to take the deduction) square footage of your office, and of your home

Related: TaxSlayer Review

Additional expense documentation you may need

There are additional expenses that may be tax-deductible, however, they may not be provided by a third-party reporting source. If that’s the case, you may also need to gather the following documents:

  • Expenses for rental property
  • Documentation for the purchase of depreciable assets for business or investment activity
  • Property taxes paid but not reported on Form 1098 by a lender
  • Federal and state estimated tax payments made for the tax year
  • Cost basis of investments sold (if the information is not provided by a broker)
  • Indirect expenses related to investment activity
  • Documentation of alimony paid
  • Receipts from the purchase of energy-efficient equipment installed in your home
  • Charitable contributions made but not reported by the receiving organization
  • Mileage driven for business, employment, medical or charitable activities, as well as records of payment for tolls, parking, and ad valorem taxes
  • Evidence of payment of health insurance, out-of-pocket medical, dental, and vision expenses, medical mileage, and long-term care insurance
  • Childcare expenses paid, if not supplied by the provider (including the provider’s tax id number)
  • Wages paid to a domestic care provider, including that provider’s tax ID number
  • An itemized list of higher education expenses paid out-of-pocket, with documentation
  • Cost of preparation of last year’s income tax returns
  • Sales tax paid on major purchases (which may not apply due to the new limit on state and local taxes)

Income tax brackets for 2021

The various income tax brackets for 2021 are only slightly changed from 2020. There are seven tax rates: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%.

Resource: 2021/2022 Federal Income Tax Brackets and Standard Deductions

Other changes in deductions for 2021 (filing in 2022)

The mortgage interest deduction. December 15, 2017, is an important date with regard to the mortgage interest deduction. If you secured a home mortgage prior to that date, you can deduct the interest on that indebtedness on loans up to $1 million.

But if you’ve taken on mortgage indebtedness after that date, you can take a deduction for mortgage interest paid on indebtedness up to only $750,000. If you’re married filing separately, the interest deduction is limited to indebtedness of no more than $375,000.

Mortgage interest on a second mortgage or home equity line of credit is deductible, but the proceeds must be used to buy, build, or substantially improve your home. You won’t be able to deduct interest paid on secondary financing if the funds were used for purposes not related to your home.

Deduction for state income, real estate, and sales tax limited. Referred to as the SALT deduction (for State And Local Taxes), your deduction is limited to $10,000 if you are married filing jointly, or $5,000 if you’re single. That includes all non-federal taxes, such as state income tax, sales tax, and real estate taxes on your primary or secondary residence.

Other expenses that were deductible through 2017 that have been completely eliminated include:

  • The deduction for job-related expenses and other miscellaneous deductions.
  • The deduction for qualified tuition and fees.
  • Deduction for mortgage insurance premiums.

Medical expense deduction. Taxpayers who itemize their deductions have limits on deductions for medical expenses. For 2021, you can deduct unreimbursed medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income.

Mileage allowances. The mileage allowances for 2021 are as follows:

  • Business mileage: 58.5 cents per mile
  • Charitable mileage: 14 cents per mile (unchanged from 2019)
  • Medical and moving mileage: 18 cents per mile

Qualified business income (QBI) deduction. This is another change that took place in 2018. You may be able to deduct up to 20% of your qualified business income from your qualified trade or business, plus 20% of your qualified real estate investment trust dividends, and qualified publicly traded partnership income.

Total taxable income must be less than $164,900 for single filers or less than $329,800 for married, filing jointly. For the tax year 2022, the income limits rise a bit more, to $170,050 for single filers and $340,100 for married, filing jointly. If you made over those limits, you may still qualify for a partial deduction, but IRS rules surrounding the QBID get complicated, so consult a tax professional.

Related: TaxAct Review

Net Investment Income Tax (NIIT) thresholds on higher incomes

When the Affordable Care Act (ACA) was rolled out in 2010, various funding mechanisms were put in place to help pay for it. One is known as the Net Investment Income Tax, or NIIT. It extends the Medicare tax on investment income, at an annual rate of 3.8%.

The tax is imposed on investment income if you earn in excess of certain thresholds. Those thresholds are the same in 2020 as they were in 2019, and are as follows:

  • Married filing jointly $250,000
  • Married filing separately $125,000
  • Single $200,000
  • Head of household $200,000
  • Qualifying widow(er) with dependent child $250,000

If your adjusted gross income exceeds these thresholds, the tax will be applied to net income from rents, royalties, interest and dividend income, capital gains, and annuities. It will also apply to any passive income from your trade or business.

Fortunately, the tax doesn’t apply to all unearned income. For example, it is not assessed on income from Social Security, pensions, or on any gain on the sale of your primary residence.

The Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for 2021

Basically, the AMT is designed to prevent taxpayers from escaping their fair share of tax liability through tax breaks. This can include either preferential income or excessive deductions. It imposes a higher tax rate based on those income and deduction amounts.

For 2021 the AMT applies beginning at the following income thresholds:

  • Married filing jointly and surviving spouse: $118,100; exemption phase-out begins at an income of $1,079,800
  • Single: $75,900; exemption phase-out begins at an income of $539,900

If your AGI is exceeds the threshhold for your filing status, then you’ll have to pay the AMT.

The AMT is one of the most compelling reasons to use tax preparation software, particularly if you’re a high-income taxpayer.

Capital gains tax rates for 2021

Investors are given the benefit of a lower federal income tax rate on qualifying dividends and investments they hold for more than 12 months.

The capital gains tax rates for tax year 2021, are as follows:

Your Filing Status0% Tax Rate15% Tax Rate20% Tax Rate
Single$0 to $40,400$40,401 to $445,850$445,851 or more
Married filing jointly$0 to $80,800$80,801 to $501,600$501,601 or more
Married filing separately$0 to $40,400$40,401 to $250,800$250,801 or more
Head of household$0 to $54,100$54,101 to $473,750$473,751 or more

Long-term capital gains tax rates for 2022:

Filing Status0% Tax Rate15% Tax Rate20% Tax Rate
Single$0 to $41,675$41,676 to $459,750$459,751 or more
Married filing jointly$0 to $83,350$83,351 to $517,200$517,201 or more
Married filing separately$0 to $41,675$41,676 to $258,600$258,601 or more
Head of household$0 to $55,800$55,801 to $488,500$488,501 or more

If your income exceeds any of the above thresholds for your filing status, any capital gains income will be subject to ordinary income tax rates, which will range between 10% and 37%. Investments sold within one year of purchase referred to as short-term capital gains will also be subject to ordinary income tax rates.

The best ways to file your income tax return for 2021

If you’ve found the tax code to be more than a little bit complicated in the past, it’ll be even more so in 2021, due to the many changes that have taken place since 2017.

Hopefully, you’re not still preparing your income taxes manually. Even if you have a very simple tax return, it can turn into a nightmare due to the changes.

DIY tax preparation software

Tens of millions of people are now preparing their tax returns using tax preparation software. This is an excellent strategy since the software will fully incorporate all tax changes for 2021. You simply have to fill out the information requested, and the software will handle all the technicalities for you.

In addition, you’ll be able to either e-file or print your return, so it will be complete for filing. The software will even direct you where to send your return, as well as prepare a payment coupon if you owe additional tax. It will even calculate the IRS penalty, so you can pay it with your return, and not have to face a disturbing letter from the IRS while you’re trying to relax and enjoy your summer.

Tax preparation software has evolved to the point that it can handle many of the most complicated tax returns. This can include those that involve rental real estate, partnership interests, and self-employment. And if you need to make tax estimates, the software will both print IRS forms 1040ES, as well as instructions on where to send your estimated payments.

Some of the best tax preparation software available include TurboTax, H&R Block, Tax Slayer, and TaxAct, among others. You can read all about them in our article Comparing The Best Tax Software Programs before making your selection.

You can also start by investigating our post What Is The Cheapest Tax Software? This can be an excellent starting point because most tax preparation software plans have free versions. You can investigate those versions, as well as consider any premium services they offer for more complicated returns. In that way, you can construct ta software for you, based on a buffet table of services, and their respective costs.

Using a professional tax preparer

If you don’t feel comfortable preparing your own taxes using one of the popular tax preparation software plans, you can always opt to have your return prepared by a tax professional. This may be the preferred way to go if you have an especially complicated tax situation, and even more so if you’re concerned about the risk of an IRS audit.

If you hire a professional, you should either go with a CPA or an enrolled agent.

Certified Public Accountant. CPAs are trained tax professionals. Not only do they have access to a wealth of information on the tax code, but they also regularly attend training sessions to keep them current on the latest changes and complications, and use some of the most advanced tax software available.

They can handle the most complicated tax situations, and even represent you before the IRS in the event of an audit. The disadvantage of using a CPA is that they are generally the most expensive tax preparation option, and by a wide margin at that.

Enrolled agents (EAs). These are professional tax preparers who are licensed to prepare taxes, as well as to represent you before the IRS in an audit. They’re a less expensive way to get your taxes prepared by a third party. And while many are very good at what they do, the standards are not necessarily as high as they are for CPAs.

How to get access to a tax professional without paying the higher fee

If you don’t want the expense and complication of working with a professional tax preparer, you can still consider using tax preparation software. Some services, like TurboTax and H&R Block, will provide direct professional tax preparer assistance in the preparation of your return for an additional fee.

With TurboTax, that can mean having a tax expert remotely access your computer to help you prepare your return. In the case of H&R block, you can move the preparation over to a preparer at one of their thousands of offices across the country. And either service can provide audit representation before the IRS for an additional fee.

What if you need to file an extension?

You can request an extension, and it will be granted automatically. You can do this by filing IRS Form 4868, Application for Automatic Extension of Time To File U.S. Individual Income Tax Return. It must be filed no later than midnight, April 18, 2022.

By filing the form, you’ll get an extension through October 15th, 2022. That will give you a full six months to complete your return. But don’t wait until the last minute if you plan to file by October 15th. There are no more extensions beyond that date.

It’s also important to understand the extension applies only to the filing of your tax return. It does not give you an extension to pay any income tax you owe. If you don’t make your full tax payments by April 18th, interest in penalties will be assessed on the unpaid balance.

What if you can’t pay your taxes by the due date?

If you owe more than you can pay by the due date, you do have a couple of payment options.

Request more time to pay. The IRS will provide up to 120 days to pay the amount of tax you owe. To do this, you will need to contact the IRS and request additional time to pay. This request must be made and approved prior to the tax filing date.

Set up an installment payment plan. If you won’t be able to pay the tax due within 120 days, you can apply for an Installment Agreement with the IRS. This will give you up to 72 months to pay your tax debt. But if the amount due is greater than $25,000, you will need to complete a financial disclosure.

Whether you’re permitted more time to pay your tax bill, or you set up an installment agreement, interest and penalties will apply to the unpaid balance. It’s not a perfect arrangement, but at least you can rest assured knowing you won’t go to debtors’ prison because you can’t pay your taxes!


How long will it take to get your refund?

If you file your return electronically, the refund is generally processed within 21 days of the e-file acceptance date. In most cases, it will be less. If you file a paper return, it will take between six to eight weeks.

You can use the IRS Where’s My Refund tool to track the progress of your refund. However, if you use tax preparation software, the software itself may track your refund, and let you know when to expect its arrival.

Related: Tax Refund Schedule

Final thoughts on filing your 2021 taxes

This is everything you need to know about filing your 2021 taxes at least subject to any last-minute revisions or tweaks. Unless you’re prepared to pay the high fees of a professional tax preparer, we strongly recommend you choose tax preparation software that looks to be a comfortable fit. Good tax preparation software will take care of all the details for you.

Cash App Taxes is one of those companies. They offer free federal AND free state returns and can tackle most of the complex situations you need. Credit Karma Tax provides an Audit Defense guarantee as well as a Maximum Refund guarantee and vow never to charge you to file your tax returns.

Kevin Mercadante

Kevin Mercadante

Since 2009, Kevin Mercadante has been sharing his journey from a washed-up mortgage loan officer emerging from the Financial Meltdown as a contract/self-employed slash worker accountant/blogger/freelance blog writer on

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