The Complete Guide to Filling Out Your W-4 Form

Use this guide when filling out a W-4.
The Complete Guide to Filling Out Your W-4 Form
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When you start a new job — or your financial or marital situation changes — you will likely have to fill out a new W-4 form. This form is used to determine how much of your income should be withheld for federal taxes, so it’s important to take the time to fill it out carefully and completely.

If you’re not sure how to fill out a W-4 form, keep reading for a simple step-by-step breakdown.

In This Guide:

The Basics: What Is a W-4 Form?

The W-4 form — which is an Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate — is used to let your employer know how much of your income should be withheld for federal taxes. You should fill out a new W-4 whenever your personal or financial situation changes. In fact, the IRS recommends filling out a new W-4 form every year.

The form includes fields for your name, address, Social Security number, marital status, total number of allowances you are claiming, any additional amount you want to be withheld for each paycheck, whether you are claiming exemption from withholding, your employer’s name and address, your first date of employment and your employer identification number.

Generally, if you claim more allowances, less income tax will be withheld from your paycheck — which means you’ll take home a bigger paycheck. If you claim a smaller number of allowances, more income tax will be withheld from your paycheck, which may lead to a larger refund at the end of the tax year. To help you determine what to claim on a W-4 and the total number of allowances you should claim, the IRS provides you with three worksheets:

  • Personal Allowances Worksheet
  • Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet
  • Two Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet

These worksheets will provide the answer to the question, “What should I claim on my W-4?”

You can download a copy of the 2019 W-4 form (with all of the worksheets included) on the IRS’s website. The best way to fill out a W-4 is to start with the worksheets, and then move on to the form itself. If you need help filling out a W-4, carefully follow each of the following steps.

Step 1: Fill Out the Personal Allowance Worksheet

The first part of Form W-4 is a Personal Allowances Worksheet that should help you determine how many exemptions you can claim. You are welcome to fill out the worksheet, but you don’t need to submit it to your employer. Instructions on how to fill out a W-4 form single are different from how you’d fill out the form if you’re married.

“Your marital status will be the first deciding factor on what allowances and W-4 deductions should be claimed,” said Audrey Goetz, certified public accountant, certified valuation analyst and manager at the accounting firm Rudler, PSC. Here are some guidelines Goetz offers:

  • If you are single: Generally mark single and claim a single allowance for yourself.
  • If you are a married taxpayer and both spouses work: Mark married for your status.
  • If you have dependents, specifically children under 17: Consider claiming an allowance for each child.
  • If you don’t have children under 17 eligible for the child tax credit: It’s not recommended to take any other allowances against withholdings.
Here’s a guide to filling out each line on the Personal Allowance Worksheet.

1. Enter “1” on line A for yourself.

No matter what your status is, everyone will enter a “1” on this line.

2. If you are married and filing jointly, enter “1” on line B.

181206_GBR_W4_PersonalAllowances_2

Otherwise, leave this line blank.

3. If you are filing as head of household, enter “1” on line C.

According to the IRS, you should only claim head of household filing status if you are unmarried, and pay more than 50 percent of the costs of keeping up a home for yourself and your dependent(s) or other qualifying individuals. If this does not apply to you, leave this line blank.

4. If any of the following applies to you, you will enter a “1” on line D:

  • You are single, or married filing separately, and only have one job.
  • You’re married filing jointly, have only one job and your spouse does not work.
  • Your wages from a second job, your spouse’s wages from a second job or the total wages from both of your second jobs are $1,500 or less.

5. If you have children, read here about how to fill out line E — the child tax credit can save you up to $2,000 per qualifying child for children 17 and under.

A qualifying child must be related to you, live in your home more than half the year and should not provide more than half of his or her own financial support. Special rules apply if you are divorced or legally separated. For more information on the child tax credit, see IRS Publication 972. If you don’t qualify for this tax credit, leave line E blank. If you do qualify for the child tax credit, the number you put in line E will depend on your income:

  • Enter “4” for each eligible child if your total income is less than $71,201, or $103,351 if you are married filing jointly.
  • Enter “2” for each eligible child if your total income ranges from $71,201 to $179,050, or $103,351 to $345,850 if you are married filing jointly.
  • Enter “1” for each eligible child if your total income ranges from $179,051 to $200,000, or $345,851 to $400,000 if you are married filing jointly.
  • If your total income is higher than $200,000 — or $400,000 if you are married filing jointly — you don’t qualify for this credit and will enter “0” on line E.

6. To fill out line F properly, remember that dependents who can’t be claimed for the child tax credit might still qualify for the credit for other dependents, according to the IRS.

This is a credit of up to $500 per qualifying person. To find out if you have a dependent who qualifies for this credit, you can use the IRS’s Interactive Tax Assistant tool. If this credit does not apply to you, leave line F blank. If you do have a dependent who qualifies for this tax credit, the number you put on line F will vary by income:

  • Enter “1” for each eligible dependent if your income is less than $71,201 or $103,351 if you are married filing jointly.
  • If your income ranges from $71,201 to $179,050, or $103,351 to $345,850 if you are married filing jointly, the number you enter will depend on your number of dependents. You can only claim this allowance if you have two or more dependents, and you will enter “1” for every two dependents. So if you have only one dependent, enter “0;” if you have two to three dependents, enter “1;” if you have four dependents, enter “2.”
  • If your total income is higher than $179,050 — or $345,850 if you are married filing jointly — you don’t qualify for this credit and will enter “0” on line F.

7. To fill out line G correctly, you will also need to fill out Worksheet 1-6 of IRS Publication 505.

Worksheet 1-6 shows other credits you might qualify for, including:

  • Credit for the elderly or disabled
  • Credit for child and dependent care expenses
  • Education credits
  • Adoption credit
  • Foreign tax credit
  • Retirement savings contribution credit
  • Earned income credit
  • Premium tax credit
  • General business credit
  • Health coverage tax credit
  • Mortgage interest credit
  • Qualified electric vehicle credit
  • Credit for prior year minimum tax
  • Credit to holders of tax credit bonds

8. Add up the numbers on lines A through G to calculate your total number of allowances, and enter the number on line H.

Remember to always double-check your math when filling out this worksheet and other tax forms.

Step 2: Make Adjustments on Your W-4

Complete the Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet only if you plan to itemize tax deductions or claim certain credits on your income tax return. You won’t need to do this if you plan on claiming a standard deduction on your income tax return.

If you do fill out this worksheet, follow these steps:

1. Put the estimated amount of your 2019 itemized deductions on line 1. This number can include:

  • Medical and dental expenses that are more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income — or the amount you earn before taxes are taken out
  • State and local income taxes up to $10,000
  • Deductible home mortgage interest
  • Investment interest up to net investment income
  • Charitable contributions
  • Casualty and theft losses attributable to a federally declared disaster that are more than $100 and 10 percent of your adjusted gross income

2. The amount you enter on line 2 will depend on your filing status:

  • Enter “$24,400” if you are married filing jointly or a qualified widow(er).
  • Enter “$18,350” if you’re head of household.
  • Enter “$12,200” if you’re single or married filing separately.

3. Subtract line 2 from line 1, and put this number on line 3.

If the number is zero or less, just put “0.”

4. Use line 4 to record an estimate of your 2018 adjustments to income, or any additional standard deduction for age or blindness.

The following qualify as adjustments to income:

  • Net losses from business if you are a sole proprietor
  • Capital losses
  • Supplemental income loss from rental real estate, royalties, partnerships, S corporations, estates, trusts, REMICs, etc.
  • Loss from farming
  • Ordinary losses from sale of business property
  • Net operating loss carryovers
  • Certain business expenses of reservists, performing artists and fee-based government officials
  • HSA or medical savings account deduction
  • Certain moving expenses for active duty Armed Forces
  • Deduction for self-employment tax
  • Deduction for contributions to self-employed SEP and qualified SIMPLE plans
  • Self-employed health insurance deduction
  • Penalty on early withdrawal of savings
  • Alimony paid
  • IRA deduction
  • Student loan interest deduction
  • Jury duty pay given to your employer
  • Reforestation amortization and expenses
  • Deductible expenses related to income from the rental of personal property for profit
  • Repayment of certain supplemental unemployment benefits
  • Contributions to pension plans
  • Contributions by certain chaplains to plans
  • Attorney fees and court costs for certain unlawful discrimination claims
  • Attorney fees and court costs for certain whistle-blower awards
  • Estimated amount decrease in tax attributable to income averaging for farmers and fishermen
  • Educator expenses

5. Add lines 3 and 4, and enter the total on line 5.

Again, always remember to double-check your math when adding up amounts on your W-4.

6. Enter your estimated non-wage income on line 6.

Non-wage income includes interest, dividends, net rental income, unemployment compensation, alimony, gambling winnings, prizes and awards, hobby income, capital gains, royalties and partnership income.

7. Subtract line 6 from line 5, and put that amount on line 7.

If the number is zero, write “0.” If the number is less than zero, enter that amount in parentheses.

8. Divide the amount on line 7 by $4,200 and put the result on line 8.

If the number is a negative amount, write it in parentheses. Do not include fractions.

9. Put the number from line H from the Personal Allowances Worksheet on line 9.

181206_GBR_W4_Adjustments_9

As a reminder, the information on line H is the total you got when you added lines A through G on the Personal Allowances Worksheet.

10. Add lines 8 and 9, and put the number on line 10.

If the number is zero or less, write “0” on line 10. Line 10 will reflect your total W-4 allowances, which will go on line 5 of the W-4 Form.

If you are also planning to use the Two-Earner/Multiple Jobs Worksheet, proceed to the next worksheet.

See: 7 Paycheck Laws Your Boss Could Be Breaking

Step 3: Fill Out the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet

If you have more than one job at a time or are married filing jointly and have a working spouse, you should fill out the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet.

“Since your multiple employers don’t withhold taxes based on your total salary, the easiest thing to do is to withhold at a higher rate,” said Goetz. “This makes sense if you have, say, two $25,000-a-year jobs. Both employers will withhold based on the individual incomes of $25,000. However, that does not take into account that you have two jobs that produce $50,000 of income, and you could end up under-withheld come year-end.”

To fill out this worksheet, you might need to refer to Table 1 and Table 2 below:

Keep reading for step-by-step instructions on how to fill out the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet.

1. On line 1, enter the number from line H of the Personal Allowances Worksheet if you did not fill out the Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet.

If you did fill out the Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet, put the number from line 10 of that worksheet on this line.

2. Use Table 1 of the worksheet to determine the number that should go on line 2. Be sure to use wages from your lowest-paying job.

If you are married filing jointly and the wages from the highest-paying job are $75,000 or less, and the combined wages for you and your spouse are $107,000 or less, don’t enter a number greater than “3” on line 2.

3. If line 1 is more than or equal to line 2, subtract line 2 from line 1.

Enter the result on line 3 and do not complete the rest of the worksheet. If line 1 is less than line 2, continue on to complete lines 4 through 9.

4. Enter the number from line 2 on line 4.

5. Enter the number from line 1 on line 5.

6. Subtract line 5 from line 4, and enter the result on line 6.

7. Use Table 2 of the worksheet to complete line 7. Be sure to use wages from your highest-paying job.

8. Multiply line 7 by line 6, and put the result on line 8.

9. Divide line 8 by the number of pay periods you have left in the current year. Put this amount on line 9.

The total number of allowances from any previous worksheets will go in line 1 of the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet. Once this number has been calculated, you can proceed to follow the instructions on lines 2 through 9.

Find Out: The First Thing You Should Do With Every Paycheck

Step 4: Complete the Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate

Once you have completed any applicable worksheets, you can begin filling out the W-4 form that you will give to your employer. (Note: You cannot fill out a W-4 online because you must submit it to your employer.)

  1. Fill out fields 1 through 4 with your personal information.
  2. For W-4 line 5, enter the total amount calculated in line H of the Personal Allowances Worksheet if you did not complete a Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet; if you did complete the Deductions, Adjustments and Additional Income Worksheet, the amount from line 10 of that worksheet will go on line 5 of Form W-4.
  3. If you completed the Two-Earners/Multiple Jobs Worksheet, put the amount from line 10 of that worksheet on line 6 of Form W-4. If you did not fill out the worksheet, line 6 should say $0.
  4. Carefully read line 7, and make sure you meet both requirements if you plan on claiming exemption from withholding. If you meet the requirements, write “Exempt” in line 7. If you do not, leave this line blank.
  5. Sign and date your form and give to your employer to fill out fields 8, 9 and 10.

W-4 Example: Employee’s Withholding Allowance Certificate

Your completed W-4 form should look similar to the W-4 example above.

Need to Know: W-4 Form FAQs

You might still need clarification on topics other than how to complete a W-4. Here are answers to some frequently asked questions:

1. What’s the difference between a W-4 and a W-2?

A W-4 is the form you fill out upon employment so your employer withholds your desired amount of federal income tax from your paycheck. A W-2 is the IRS tax form you receive from your employer at the end of the tax year. It includes information on how much money you earned, how much money was withheld for federal and state taxes, and other contributions including to Social Security and your employer-sponsored 401k account. You’ll use Form W-2 when filing your taxes.

W-2 vs. W-4: How to Manage Your Taxable Income

2. What should I do if I’m earning money from two jobs?

When you have income from two jobs, you only need to complete one W-4 form, but you must split your allowances between the W-4 forms for each job. According to Turbo Tax, it’s recommended that you claim all of your allowances on the W-4 form for the highest-paying job and claim zero allowances on the others.

3. How do I know if my employer is withholding too much from my paycheck?

Once your W-4 form takes effect, you can use the IRS withholding calculator on IRS.gov or reference Pub. 505 to see whether the amount being withheld is comparable to the projected total tax for the year.

4. Will the amount of money I earn from investments and dividends affect my W-4?

The IRS classifies investments and dividends as non-wage income. When you’re earning a significant amount of non-wage income, you can make estimated tax payments using Form 1040-ES to avoid owing additional tax when tax season rolls around.

5. How many allowances can I claim on my W-4 form?

The maximum number of allowances you can claim depends on the number of exemptions you’re allowed to claim. You might be claiming a dependency exemption on your federal income tax return, which means you’ll be claiming at least one allowance for the number of dependents on your W-4 form — reference line D on your Personal Allowances Worksheet.

6. How does my W-4 form affect my net pay?

Your employer deducts your tax withholdings based on the number of allowances you report on your W-4 form, and each allowance reduces the amount withheld.

To put it another way: “When filling out the W-4, I like to remember it like this: The more allowances you claim, the less tax will be withheld from each paycheck,” said Bill Weekes-Ruesch, MBA, CPA and operations manager at Easier Accounting.

7. How much will each additional allowance affect my take-home pay?

Figuring out how much one additional allowance will affect your take-home pay requires some simple math. First, multiply your tax bracket rate by the amount of one exemption, which is $4,150 for Tax Year 2018. For example, if your income is taxed at a rate of 22 percent, the annual tax benefit of one exemption is $913. If you want to break down how much that will affect each individual paycheck, divide that number by the total number of pay periods in a year. If you are paid weekly, that means each paycheck would increase by $17.56.

8. Is it better to have more earned income withheld to be on the safe side?

The best thing to do is to carefully take the time to fill out the W-4 worksheets and form to ensure the amount you are requesting to have withheld is what it should be.

“If you’d rather have more net pay now and deal with the possibility of having to pay higher taxes when filing your tax return, you can do that,” said Weekes-Ruesch. “Or,  you can choose to have more taxes withheld as you go, resulting in either a larger tax refund or lower tax liability when filing your return.”

9. What are the downsides to having more tax withheld and getting a larger refund at the end of the year?

It may seem nice to get a big fat tax refund in the mail, but you’ll wish you had access to those funds earlier if you need them for an emergency or any unforeseen expense. You’re likely better off having the money that’s rightfully yours in a savings account or other fund than with the IRS, so you can access that money on your own terms.

Click through to see how to read your pay stub.

More on Taxes

Cynthia Measom contributed to the reporting for this article.

About the Author

Gabrielle joined GOBankingRates in 2017 and brings with her a decade of experience in the journalism industry. Before joining the team, she was a staff writer-reporter for People Magazine and People.com. Her work has also appeared on E! Online, Us Weekly, Patch, Sweety High and Discover Los Angeles, and she has been featured on “Good Morning America” as a celebrity news expert.