Doing your tax return by yourself — even if you use tax preparation software — can still be a challenge.
We all know the tax code is complex and constantly changing. And that creates a great deal of anxiety and apprehension for some filers.
"They know they don't understand it and they're not sure they can handle it," said professor Nathan Oestreich, who teaches tax management at San Diego State University.
Things can get especially confusing when there are possible deductions or credits related to dependents, child care or education expenses.
"They all have different age requirements, so there are a lot of the questions related to that," explained Lisa Greene-Lewis, a CPA at TurboTax. "Also, people are hearing that if they support someone financially, they can claim that as a deduction, but there are a lot of different tests that they have to meet in order to do that."
Where's my refund?
The most common question for the IRS at this time of year is from taxpayers wanting to know the status of their refund. This is something you do online and not over the phone. Go to: Where's My Refund?
You can check within 24 hours after e-filing or four weeks after you mail in a paper return. The site is updated once a day. You'll need your Social Security number, filing status and exact amount of the refund claimed to track your return.
The IRS says most refunds are issued within 21 days of receiving the return. The quickest way to get your money is to file electronically and choose direct deposit, rather than having a refund check mailed to you. You can e-file for free, if you have an adjusted gross income of less than $58,000. Use the IRS Free File site.
Less help available
Due to budget cuts, the IRS does not have enough people working its toll-free lines. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen told Congress recently that approximately 40 percent of the taxpayers who called during last year's filing season were unable to get through. Koskinen called that level of service "unacceptable," but said it was not likely to improve by much this year.
Chances are you can find what you're looking for on the IRS website. Start your search at 1040 Central. Also, many tax preparation services, including H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and TurboTax, answer individual tax questions for free.
TurboTax provided CNBC with answers to some of the most common questions it's getting on its AnswerXchange website:
1. How do I know what tax forms I need to file my taxes?
- W-2: This form shows how much income you made and how much you paid in taxes while working for your employer during the tax year.
- 1099: You will receive a 1099-Misc if you were not paid as an employee, but worked as an independent contractor or did work on the side and made more than $600. A 1099-INT form shows interest earned from your bank account.
- 1098: If you, your spouse or your child attended college, you should receive a 1098-T for the education costs you paid and a 1098-E for any student loan interest payments you made of more than $600. You will need these forms since you can receive education credits and deductions.
More info on common tax forms and what you need to file is available here.
Other information you should have on hand when sitting down to do your taxes:
- Social Security numbers: You will need the correct Social Security numbers for your spouse and anyone else you are claiming as a dependent. According to the IRS, one of the most common filing mistakes is providing a wrong SSN.
- Receipts for donated items: If you made charitable contributions during the year and you itemize your deductions, your goodwill can reduce your taxes. Potential deductions include donations of money or goods to qualified charitable organizations.
If you had a baby in 2013, you may receive a dependent exemption of $3,900, which reduces your taxable income by that amount (even if you had your baby on Dec. 31).
Other credits available for parents include:
- Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit: If you paid for care for your child under the age of 13 or a disabled family member to be able to work, you may receive a tax credit worth up to $1,050 for one dependent and up to $2,100 for two or more.
- Earned Income Tax Credit: This tax credit, which is available to working Americans who have a low or moderate income, could mean cash back of up to $6,044 for someone with three or more children. Last year the average credit was $2,300, according to the IRS.
- Child Tax Credit: Another tax benefit for parents, this credit may be worth $1,000 for each of your children under 17.
Learn more about tax deductions and credits you can take if you have kids here.
3. I'm in college; can I deduct any of my school expenses?
To combat the ever-increasing price of college education, the tax code provides some relief via education tax credits and deductions. Education deductions and credits include:
- The American Opportunity Tax Credit: This credit helps parents and students pay for college education by giving them a credit on their tax return. The credit is up to $2,500 per student for tuition and fees, books, supplies and equipment, if the student is enrolled in a degree program at least half-time.
- The Lifetime Learning Credit: You can claim a credit of up to $2,000 per tax return for college tuition, fees and supplies paid directly to the educational institution. The college courses do not need to be part of a degree program.
- Tuition and Fees Deduction: There's also a deduction of up to $4,000 if you paid for college expenses for you, your spouse or your dependent. The 2013 return is the last year this benefit is available.
Learn more about the tax benefits available for college here.
4. Can I claim my girlfriend or boyfriend on my tax return?
- Most people know they can claim a personal exemption for their children, but you might also be able to claim exemptions for elderly parents, significant others or other relatives that qualify as a dependent.
- For each dependent you can deduct $3,900 from your federal taxable income.
- Additional details about who qualifies as a dependent on your tax return are available here.
You should file a 2013 federal income tax return even if your total income is below the filing requirement. This way you can get a refund on any withheld federal income tax. The average unclaimed tax refund is more than $600.
"In most cases, refunds go unclaimed because taxpayers who don't meet the IRS requirement to file decide not to, therefore losing out on the tax refund to which they are entitled," Green-Lewis explained.
There is a three-year window on claiming past refunds. After that, the money goes to the U.S. Treasury. If you want to claim a refund from two or three years ago, you need to make sure all subsequent year's tax returns have been filed. Check out additional information here.