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Filling out paperwork can be tedious, especially tax forms like the W-4, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.

Employers use your W-4 to determine the amount of federal tax to withhold from your paycheck. Providing accurate information helps you avoid any major surprises tax season rolls around. Withholding too little can leave you owing more taxes than you thought you would. On the other hand, withholding too much can result in a refund.

At first glance, a W-4 can read like a lot of tax terminology that you wouldn’t use in daily conversation. But with short, manageable steps, completing a W-4 can be a breeze. Follow along to figure out how to fill out a W-4.

The elements of a W-4 form

In 2020, the IRS updated the W-4 form to simplify the process for employees and increase the accuracy of tax withheld.¹ Here are the main changes:

  • Your W-4 now includes five sections instead of seven.
  • You no longer need to claim personal and dependency exceptions. Instead, you provide the number of dependents you have and any additional income from itemized deductions or a second job.¹
  • Your withholding will increase or decrease according to this information, rather than the amount of “exceptions” you take.

How to fill out a W-4 form step-by-step

Here is a handy primer for filling out the revised form:

  • Step 1: Fill out your personal information, including your name, Social Security number, and tax filing status. Check the box that corresponds with your situation: single, married and filing separately, married and filing jointly, qualifying widow or widower, or head of household.
  • Step 2: Complete this section if you have more than one job, or if you’re married and filing jointly — with one spouse the main breadwinner. Here’s what to do:
    • Fill out steps 2 through 4(b) on the W-4 form for the highest-paying job only. Keep those sections blank on the other jobs’ forms.
    • For joint filers earning a similar salary, check the box at line 2 (c) on not one but two W- 4 forms, for both jobs. Otherwise, more tax than necessary might be withheld.²
  • Step 3: Next, you can claim dependents and additional credits. If you make $200,000 or below — or under $400,000 as a jointly filing married couple — follow the instructions and multiply the number of qualifying children by $2,000 as well as other dependents (maybe your senior parent who lives with you) by $500. Add that number and fill in the section’s third line. The IRS has more information on who is eligible for dependency in Publication 501. You can add those to the grand total in line three. This can boost your paycheck in the near term but may diminish the chances of a tax refund after filing your tax return. You can also opt out of claiming dependents on your W-4 if you want more taxes taken out so you have a smaller tax bill on tax day.³
  • Step 4: In this section, you can enter non-job income and itemized deductions to decrease your withholding. You can also add student loan interest using the deductions worksheet on page three of the W-4. And in step 4(c), you can enter the additional tax that you want withheld each pay period. Short term, this will lessen your paycheck — but ultimately trim your annual income tax bill.²
  • Step 5: Sign and date the form, then give a physical or online copy to your colleagues in charge of collecting W-4 forms.
Get your federal tax refund up to six days early* when you direct deposit with Chime and file directly with the IRS.

What to consider when filling out a W-4 form

Before you get started, take note of these steps and strategies below to possibly save time and money.

  • You are required to fill out a W-4, also known as the “Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate,” when beginning a new job. This form tells employers how much federal tax to withhold from your paycheck.
  • If you’re switching jobs, you need to fill out and submit a new W-4 with your new employer.
  • You may also want to re-file your W-4 to ensure that your withholdings factor in a big life change, like having a baby, buying a home or receiving a raise at work.⁴
  • If you worked no more than 245 days during the calendar year you can ask your employer to use the part-year withholding method to reduce the amount of money withheld from your paychecks.⁴

Tax season, but make it painless

Now that you have the steps for completing a W-4 and what you should take into account for your withholding, you can fill yours out with confidence.

Since the IRS requires individuals to pay income taxes over the course of the year, trty to fill out your W-4 accurately so you don’t get hit with a surprise tax bill.

Expecting a refund? Find out how to set up direct deposit with the IRS and get your money sooner.

FAQs

What's the difference between a W-2 and a W-4?

A form W-2 is an official tax statement that employers fill out reporting wages paid to employees and the taxes that were withheld from them. An employer mails the W-2 to an employee at least eight weeks before the IRS tax deadline. The W-4 is a form filled out by the employee, not the employer. The information influences the data in the annual W-2 report.

Do W-4 forms need to be filled out every year?

No. They’re required whenever you begin a new job. However, taxpayers who had a significant personal or financial change might choose to file a fresh W-4, even if they didn’t switch jobs over the year.⁴

You can send your employer an updated form as often as you’d like, if that helps to achieve the right balance between taxes withheld and taxes potentially owed (or not).

How to fill out a W-4 if you’re married and you both work

If you and your spouse each have one job and earn about the same salary, then both of you can check box 2(c) on your W-4 forms. But if one of you earns a bigger salary than the other, the spouse with the highest-paying job will need to complete steps two through four on the form. Meanwhile, the spouse with the lowest-paying job should leave those sections empty on their form.

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¹ Information from Internal Revenue Service's "FAQs on the 2020 Form W-4" as of February 15, 2024: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/fw4.pdf

² Information from Internal Revenue Service's "Form W-4" as of February 15, 2024: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/fw4.pdf.

³ Information from Nerdwallet's "W-Form: How to Fill Out an Employee's Withholding Certificate," as of January 19, 2024: https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/taxes/how-to-fill-out-form-w4-guide.

⁴ Information from International Revenue Service's "Publication 505" as of February 15, 2024: https://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p505.pdf

* Chime does not guarantee timing of refund. Six day refund estimate is based on 2022 tax year filing data. Refund timing estimates are dependent upon timing of complete tax return submission and other requirements.

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