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Form 1040 instructions for small business owners and the self-employed

While the 1040 is one of the most common tax forms — if you ask almost any tax-paying American, you’ll likely see a glimmer of recognition — it’s also deceptively complex. In fact, the Internal Revenue Service’s Form 1040 instructions PDF document is over 100 pages.

Those complex Form 1040 instructions can be an especially large headache for small business owners and the self-employed. When the end of the tax year rolls around, the process of trying to figure out taxes can be frustrating, overwhelming and time-consuming.

The goal for most is to get in, get out and move on as quickly as possible. However, slowing down before you start the process of filing federal tax forms for your business can save you both time and money. In the long run, that preparation can put you in a good position for next year’s tax season and ensure you have enough in your savings account for that looming tax payment.

To guide you through what might seem like an inescapable labyrinth of accountant jargon, let’s take a plain-language approach to how the 1040 form is structured, what Schedules you might need, and how to meet the filing requirements.

Who needs to use Form 1040?

First, you’ll need to make sure you can use the IRS Form 1040 to file taxes on behalf of your business. The 1040, also known as the U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, is a two-page document for taxpayers to determine, report, and file their income. It’s also here that taxpayers calculate their deductions and ultimately figure out how much they owe in state and federal income taxes.

Individuals typically have to file if they are citizens or resident aliens of the United States and if their income crosses a particular threshold, therefore making their taxable income positive. However, those who don’t meet these criteria could still file to reap benefits. For instance, individuals could file Form 1040 to receive a refundable credit, such as the earned income credit (EIC), which is designed for low or moderate-income working persons.

When it comes to the 1040 form, “individual” is an important keyword. The 1040 is familiar to many taxpayers because it is the income tax form required for W-2 employees. However certain small businesses can also use it to file business taxes.

You report your business income and expenses using Form 1040 if you’re self-employed you’re a small business owner who runs your company as a sole proprietorship, your company is structured as a single-member LLC, you’re a partner in a partnership or you report farm income. In each of these cases, you need to report your business income on a Schedule C attachment to your personal income tax return, also known as Form 1040.

If your company is structured as an S corporation or a C corporation, or you choose to treat your LLC as a corporation, then you’ll need to prepare a separate corporate tax return using IRS Form 1120 You typically must file Form 1040 and other tax forms by April 15 each year.

How Form 1040 is structured

If you’ve determined that your small business can use Form 1040 to file its taxes, you now need to understand how information is organized on the form itself. This will give you a better sense of how the data from your business records impacts your tax calculation.

You may remember that the IRS used to use Forms 1040-A and 1040-EZ to file taxes. After Congress passed the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the IRS switched to a single 1040 form. You will no longer see 1040-A or 1040-EZ forms available.

In the end, you will use Form 1040 to report your personal and professional earnings and expenses. You’ll also use the tax tables on the form to calculate your tax liability. That tax liability could be negative, in which case the IRS owes you a tax refund. Or, if the number is positive, it will tell you how much you owe the government.

Personal data

The Form 1040 is a two-page document. Luckily, the first page is straightforward and serves as a means to collect personal data about you, the taxpayer. For example, on this page, you will provide your Social Security Number, the number of dependents in your household and information about your spouse, if applicable. Both the taxpayer and the tax preparer — for instance, your accountant — must sign the tax return on page one.

Tax calculations

Page two is where the 1040 starts to get complicated. On this page, you’ll need to input all the data required to calculate your tax liability. That means numbers. You will need to fill in many of the lines on page two with dollar amounts that you will report on supporting Schedules, which we’ll explain below. Other lines report information from documents you receive like the gross wages reported on your W-2 form.

The information on page two is listed in a specific order to help you more easily calculate your state and federal tax liability. The order is as follows:


Lines 1-5 list all of your income sources, such as wages reported on your W-2 and income from self-employment. These lines also require you to enter how much you earned during the prior year through other income sources, e.g., from interest, investment dividends, withdrawals from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and other pension accounts, and Social Security benefits. You report your total income on line 6 and post your adjusted gross income (AGI) on line 7.

Standard or itemized deduction

Next the taxpayer deducts the standard deduction in line 8 ($12,000 if you’re filing as a single taxpayer and $24,000 if your filing status is married filing jointly). If your itemized deductions exceed your standard deduction, use the larger itemized amount instead.

Qualified business income deduction

Line 9 of your 1040 is extremely important if you’re planning to use the 1040 to file taxes for your business. You can use line 9 to claim additional tax deductions if you have qualified business income, Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) dividends or income from Publicly Traded Partnerships (PTPs).

In your case, you’ll likely want to focus on business expenses you can deduct — thereby lowering your tax liability. According to the IRS 1040 instructions, these expenses can include items like the deductible tax on self-employment income, self-employed health insurance premiums and contributions to qualified retirement plans.

Taxable income

On line 10, you’ll find your taxable income. This is your Adjusted Gross Income (which you report on line 7) minus any deductions you reported on lines 8 and 9. The result equals your taxable income.

Tax calculation, credits

Your taxable income is then used to calculate your tax liability, and the applicable tax rate is based on a set of tables. Tax credits, such as the child tax credit listed on line 12, can help reduce your tax liability.

Tax withholdings, payments

Once you know your tax liability, you can then deduct any taxes withheld, such as salary withholdings listed on your W-2, which you’ll find on line 16. After subtracting withholdings, you’ll either have a tax refund or tax amount due.

The information from page two of your 1040 can also be presented as three simple formulas:

1. Taxable income = income – standard or itemized deduction

2. Tax = taxable income x tax rate

3. Tax liability = Tax – Credits – Withholdings

Understanding this flow will help you see the impact of each item you post to your tax return.

Determine the 1040 schedules you need

Taxpayers who have simple returns — those who work as employees with W-2 income and who use the standard deduction — only need to file Form 1040. Unfortunately, as a small business owner, your situation is likely more complicated. If that’s the case, you may also need to file an additional Schedule along with your Form 1040.

The IRS increased the alternative minimum tax (AMT) recently as well. If you are single, the AMT is $70,300. If you are married filing jointly, the AMT is $109,400. If married filing separately, the AMT is $54,700.

The AMT is an alternative to the standard income tax that calls for taxpayers to itemize deductions instead of using the standard deduction. Itemized deductions are found in the various Schedules attached to the Form 1040. The AMT is in place to ensure that individuals are paying their fair share of taxes.

The AMT requires taxpayers to calculate their tax liability two times — once under the rules of the regular income tax and once under the AMT rules. Taxpayers are required to pay the higher amount of the two.

There are six supplemental Schedules that you can append to your 1040, including:

  • Schedule A: Itemized tax deductions you’ll enter on page two of Form 1040.
  • Schedule B: Interest and dividend income — these amounts are posted to the income section on Form 1040.
  • Schedule C: Line 7 of Schedule C is where sole proprietors can report their business revenue, expenses, and profit (or loss).
  • Schedule D: This is used for asset sales that generate capital gains or losses — posted to Schedule 1 (additional information below).
  • Schedule E: Supplemental form to report income or loss from rental real estate, partnerships, S corporations, royalties, trusts, estates and residual interests in real estate mortgage investment conduits (REMICs).
  • Schedule F: Line 9 of Schedule F can be used to report the amount of gross income from a farming business.

Schedules 1 and 4 were new for 2018 and were created to clarify the tax filing process.

  • Schedule 1: If you have additional income from capital gains or unemployment compensation, you must file Schedule 1. This form also includes several common tax deductions, including the student-loan interest deduction.
  • Schedule 4: Many self-employed people must file Schedule 4, which lists self-employment taxes.

How to file

Now that you know what’s on Form 1040, and what — if any — additional Schedules you’ll need to fill out, the question remains: How do I file my taxes? Luckily, this part is much less complicated than actually filling out your 1040. The IRS now provides two different ways to file your taxes: electronic or manual (via snail mail).

The electronic filing option is by far the more popular of the two choices with the IRS reporting that nearly 90% of people now use tax software for electronic filing. Many people choose to go this route because of its convenience — no hurried trips to the post office — and speed.

When you e-file, the IRS will issue your tax refund more quickly, and you can speed up the process even more if you choose to have the return sent to your checking or savings account via direct deposit.

However, if you plan on filling out your tax forms manually, you can access all IRS forms, instructions, and publications on The address for mailing your tax return is listed in the Form 1040 instructions. The downside of this option is that it can take much longer to process your return.

No matter which way you choose to file, your personal tax return — and the payment for any tax liability — is due on April 15th. If your tax situation is complex, you can request a six-month extension for more time to file, but you still have to pay your tax liability by April 15th to avoid interest charges.

Form 1040 instructions in plain language to save time

If you’re not interested in reading all of the IRS-authored instructions on how to fill out your Form 1040, there are tools that can help simplify the process for you. You may want to consider using tax software to complete your return. Then ask a tax accountant to review it for accuracy. Remember that keeping track of your expenses during the current year will make it easier for you to complete the various Schedules and file your taxes accurately.

  • Whether you choose to fill out your 1040 on your own, use software, consult an accountant or do a combination of the three, it’s always a good idea to have a basic understanding of tax law. By investing time now, you’ll have a better understanding of how your federal tax return works, and you’ll be better prepared to file next year’s return.

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