If you’ve recently started a new job, gotten married, or had a child, you must complete an IRS Form W-4. Your W-4 tells your employer how much to withhold in federal taxes from your paycheck based on your filing status and exemptions.
Filling out your W-4 ensures you do not under or overpay federal taxes, so completing the form without errors is vital. Filing your W-4 form can feel intimidating, but with step-by-step guidance, you can ensure it is correct to avoid future tax issues.
Step 1: Personal Information and Filing Status
The first section of Form W-4 is titled “Enter Personal Information.” You must fill out essential information such as your name, address, city, state, ZIP code, and Social Security Number in the appropriate fields.
After filling out your personal information, choose your filing status. Each status changes your tax situation and the amount of money your employer withholds from your paycheck for federal income taxes.
If you are unsure of your filing status, visit the IRS Withholding Calculator for help.
How to Pick the Correct W-4 Filing Status
Your filing status typically corresponds to your marital status on December 31 of that year. You may be eligible for multiple filing statuses, allowing you to select the one that offers you the most benefits. Filing statuses include single, married filing separately, married filing jointly, qualifying surviving spouse, and head of household.
What will happen if I put a different filing status than my real status?
If you claim a filing status for which you are unqualified, you risk creating a discrepancy between the taxes you owe and the amount of money withheld from your paycheck. The IRS may investigate discrepancies to verify whether you have withheld the correct amount of taxes.
Withholding too little for taxes may result in an audit, a tax bill to pay the difference, plus potential penalties. If the IRS determines you owe a penalty, you will receive a notice or a letter explaining the penalty and the reasons for its issuance.
You should only continue filling out the rest of your W-4 if your family situation falls into one of the following categories or you are sure of adjustments you need to make:
Single or Married Filing Separately: The IRS considers you single if you are unmarried, divorced, or legally separated by state law. You may also check this box if you are married and both you and your spouse decided to file tax returns separately.
Married Filing Jointly or Qualifying Surviving Spouse: Check this box if you are married and choose to file your taxes jointly with your spouse or if you are a widow and meet the IRS’s conditions to file as a qualifying surviving spouse. Joint filers enjoy benefits, such as higher standard tax deductions and a higher maximum income limit for claiming dependents ($400,000 instead of $200,000).
Head of Household: A taxpayer may qualify for head of household if they are unmarried, pay more than 50% of a home’s upkeep expenses, live with children or qualifying dependents, and are responsible for at least 50% of their living expenses. Heads of household may reduce your withholding compared with single or married filing separately.
Step 2: Multiple Jobs or Spouse Also Works
When you have multiple jobs or file taxes jointly as a married couple, you may need to adjust your tax withholding to ensure you don’t underpay or overpay taxes. Calculating the correct amount of withholding depends on the number of jobs you report (or you and your spouse, if filing jointly) and the total income earned from these jobs.
Only complete step 2 if your filing status is married filing jointly and you and your spouse both work, or if you have more than one job. If neither situation describes yours, you may simply skip this step.
If you have multiple jobs, check the total number of jobs you hold, then verify whether one of these situations applies to you:
If you hold exactly two jobs AND the income earned at the lower paying job is more than 50% that of the higher paying job, check the (c) box in Step 2 on both jobs’ Form W-4s.
If you hold more than two jobs OR you hold two jobs, but your lower paying job income is 50% or less than your higher paying job, use the Multiple Jobs Worksheet on Page 3 of the form.
Example A: Joe files as a single taxpayer and works two jobs. The higher-paying job earns him $32,000 yearly, whereas the second job earns him $18,000. Joe’s lower-paying job earns him a little over half what he makes at the higher paying job, allowing him to check the Step 2(c) box on both of his Form W-4s.
Example B: Kelly files as a single taxpayer and works two jobs. Her yearly income at the higher-paying job is $41,000, whereas the second job earns her $12,500. The higher-paying job pays her monthly, resulting in 12 pay periods per year. The form recommends using the Multiple Jobs Worksheet in Step 2(b) to calculate the correct withholding amounts. Since she only works two jobs, Kelly can skip subsection 2 of this step.
Kelly uses the tables on Page 4 of the form to calculate the amount to enter in Subsection 1. As her filing status is Single, she determines the correct value to enter is $3,450. In Subsection 3, Kelly enters 12, the number of yearly pay periods for her higher-paying job.
In Subsection 4, she must divide the amount entered in Subsection 1 by the number in Subsection 3. In this case, the result is 3,450 ÷ 12, or 287.50. Per the form’s instructions, Kelly enters this value in the Step 4(c) field.
Filing as Married Filing Jointly and Spouse Also Works
If your filing status is Married Filing Jointly and both you and your spouse work, you will report at least two jobs to the IRS. Count the total number of jobs you and your spouse hold, then determine which of these situations apply to you:
- If you and your spouse hold a single job each (total of two reported jobs) AND the lower paying job earns over 50% of the higher paying job’s income, check the Step 2(c) box.
- If you and your spouse hold a single job each (two jobs) AND the lower paying job earns 50% or less than the higher paying job’s income, OR you or your spouse works more than one job (total of three reported jobs or more), you’ll need to use the Multiple Jobs Worksheet on the form’s Page 3.
Example: Lauren and Matthew are a married couple. They have decided to file jointly and checked the corresponding filing status box in Step 1. Lauren works a single job with a yearly income of $38,000. Matthew works two jobs, making $39,000 at the higher paying job and $17,000 at the lower paying job. Matthew’s highest paying job pays him monthly, equal to 12 pay periods.
Their situation means they are reporting a total of three jobs, so they must use the Multiple Jobs Worksheet in Step 2(b) to calculate their withholding amounts. Both Lauren and Matthew may skip Subsection 1 of Step 2(b).
In Subsection 2a, the value to enter is $3,320. In Subsection 2b, the correct value is $2,220. Subsection 2c is equal to the sum of the values entered in 2a and 2b, which is $5,540. In Subsection 3, the couple must enter 12, the number of pay periods at the highest paying job.
Subsection 4 is calculated by dividing the value entered in Subsection 2c by the value entered in Subsection 3. In that case, it is 5,540 ÷ 12, or 461.67. Both Lauren and Matthew must write this value in Subsection 4 and in the Step 4(c) field.
Step 3: Dependent(s) and Other Credits
Step 3 of the form allows you to claim qualifying dependents. Claiming dependents reduces the amount of money withheld for taxes, resulting in higher take-home pay. You may claim an unlimited number of dependents as long as they meet the IRS criteria.
The IRS distinguishes two types of dependents on a Tax Form W-4: qualifying children under the age of 17 and qualifying other dependents. You will get $2,000 of tax credit for each claimed qualifying child under 17 and $500 for each qualifying other dependent.
Before completing Step 3, verify your filing status and total yearly income. You may only fill Step 3 out if your yearly income is $200,000 or less. If married and filing jointly, the limit is $400,000 or less.
If you have no dependents, you may not claim any on your Form W-4. Enter $0 in the first two fields.
If you have a single dependent, check whether they are a qualifying child under the age of 17 or another dependent.
If your dependent is a qualifying child under 17 years old, enter $2,000 in the first field and $0 in the second. If your dependent isn’t a qualifying child under 17, such as a dependent parent, you’ll need to enter $0 in the first field and $500 in the second.
Count the type and number of dependents. Multiply the number of qualifying children under 17 by 2,000, and enter the corresponding value in the first field. Then, multiply the number of qualifying other dependents by 500 and enter the result in the second field.
For example, if you have one qualifying child under 17 and one other dependent, you may enter $2,000 in the first field and $500 in the second.
Use the same process for multiple dependents. For instance, if you have three qualifying children and one other dependent, enter $6,000 in the first field (3 x $2,000) and $500 (1 x $500) in the second.
Step 4a: Other Income
Step 4 of Form W-4 allows you to enter additional tax withholdings for various situations. Step 4a allows you to withhold money from non-employment related income, such as retirement, interest, dividends, or self-employment such as freelancing.
1099 Contractor (Uber, DoorDash, etc.)
A 1099 contractor is a taxpayer who earns a living as an independent contractor. Instead of using a Form W-4, this type of taxpayer uses a Form 1099 to report their income to the IRS. The IRS considers independent contractors to be self-employed.
Page 2 of IRS Form W-4 indicates that self-employed individuals owe both income and self-employment taxes. If you are a regular employee with a Form W-4 and an independent contractor, you may use your Form W-4 to pay income and self-employment taxes from your 1099 contractor job.
Example: Norman works two jobs: one as an employee with a Form W-4 earning $37,000 per year and another as a 1099 contractor with Uber. He wants to use his W-4 to withhold taxes for his work as an Uber driver.
Norman calculated he makes about $9,000 a year when working as an Uber driver, so he must enter 9,000 in the Step 4(a) field. Per the instructions on Page 2, he must also calculate his self-employment tax by multiplying the self-employment income by 14.13%. The result is 1,271.70 (9,000 x 0.1413).
Norman must then divide that number by the number of remaining pay periods in the year and include the result in Step 4(c).
Investment income is defined as any money received through interest payments, dividends, capital gains from selling assets or stock, and any other type of investment profit.
Although not strictly income from investment, any interest over $10 earned on bank accounts, such as a savings account, is also considered investment income. Banks will report interest income to you by issuing a Form 1099-INT.
If you’ve received any type of investment income during the year, you can use your W-4 to withhold taxes for this type of income. Enter the amount you’ve earned from investment income in the Step 4(a) field.
Side Business or Freelance Work
The IRS considers income made from side businesses and freelance work equivalent to self-employment. Taxpayers who earn income from these sources owe both income and self-employment taxes because they are considered independent contractors.
If you want to withhold taxes for your side business or freelance work income from your W-4, follow the same instructions as with self-employment.
Social Security Benefits
Most taxpayers who qualify for Social Security benefits aren’t required to withhold taxes from these benefits. According to the rules outlined by the IRS and the Social Security Administration (SSA), taxpayers who both receive Social Security benefits and earn substantial income may be required to pay taxes on the former. IRS regulations stipulate that you are only required to pay taxes on 85% of your Social Security benefits.
If you owe taxes on your Social Security benefits, you may opt to have these taxes withheld. You cannot use a regular Form W-4 to do so. Instead, you must fill out and send a Form W-4V and submit it to the nearest Social Security office.
The IRS defines alimony as payments owed to a spouse or former spouse following a divorce, a written separation agreement, or another legal separation instrument. It does not include child support, property settlements not paid in cash, voluntary payments, or property upkeep and maintenance payments.
According to the IRS, alimony payments allocated in a divorce or separation on or before December 31, 2018 are considered part of your gross income and are taxable. This is due to changes made to the taxation of alimony in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
If your alimony agreement was made after December 31, 2018, or a modification was made after this date, you will not include alimony as income.
Step 4b: Deductions
Step 4b of Form W-4 allows you to withhold taxes for deductions other than the standard deduction. Page 3 of the form contains the Deductions Worksheet, which has instructions on how to calculate these deductions.
Example: Paul is filing as a single taxpayer. He has estimated his total itemized deductions for 2023 amount to about $15,000, meaning he must enter this amount in Line 1. As a single taxpayer, he must enter $13,850 in Line 2. Since the value in Line 1 is greater than the value in Line 2, Paul must enter the difference in Line 3. In this case, it is $1,150 ($15,000 – $13,850).
Line 4 requires Paul to enter an estimate of his student loan interest, deductible IRA contributions, and other adjustments. He estimates the combined total at $2,200. Line 5 is calculated by adding the values in Lines 3 and 4. In Paul’s case, the result would be $3,350.
Step 4c: Extra Withholding
Step 4c allows you to specify additional money to withhold for taxes in each pay period on top of all other withholdings. Although using extra withholding will reduce your take-home pay, you can take advantage of it to generate a higher tax refund amount, which can be useful when saving up for a large purchase.
Example: Quentin is employed and paid every month. He wishes to withhold an additional $6,000 for the year. He is paid monthly and has 12 pay periods per year. To withhold the target amount, Quentin must enter $500 in Line 4c. $500 per pay period x 12 total pay periods = $6,000 withheld.
Step 5: Sign and Date
Step 5 of the form contains spaces for the employee to sign and date the form. Failing to sign your Form W-4 will render it invalid. Do not write anything in the sections marked “Employers Only,” as your employer will fill these in for you.
Confused? Use the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator
If you are uncertain of the amount you want your employer to withhold from your paycheck, the IRS provides a free Tax Withholding Estimator to help you estimate your withholdings.
W-4 Instructions by Situation
Understanding your specific situation is essential when filling out your Form W-4. Your filing status, number of jobs, dependents, and many other circumstances can affect the details you need to enter on your form.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Single
If you are filing as single, mark the box in line 1(c) as single and fill out the rest of the document according to the specifics of your job, dependents, and other circumstances.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Married and Both Work
If you are married and you and your spouse work, you can file jointly or separately as a married couple. If you file jointly, you will need to use step 2 to calculate how much to withhold from one paycheck. When filing separately be careful to only count deductions on one W-4.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Head of Household
As the head of household, you will use line 1(c) to mark your title. Then, fill out the remainder of the form as directed.
How to Fill Out W-4 with 1, 2, 3, or 4+ Dependents
If you have dependents, fill out Step 3 on your W-4. This step lets you select your number of dependents, including children and adults that meet the IRS criteria.
How to Fill Out W-4 With a Second Job
If you have a second job, use step 2 of the W-4 to calculate how much extra you should withhold to account for the additional income.
How to Fill Out W-4 for Maximum Withholding (Biggest Refund)
If you want to receive the largest refund, fill out your W-4 and submit it along with your tax payment on time to prevent any penalties. To increase your refund, use line 4(c) to withhold extra from your paycheck each month to receive a larger refund when you file your taxes.
How to Fill Out W-4 as a Minor
Minors are required to file a form W-4, but they may not make enough money to be taxed. If they do not, they may fill out the form for an exemption. If they make over $12,950, the IRS requires them to file taxes.
Example: Jane, a 16-year-old, works a summer job where she made $3,000. She can select exempt on her W-4 if she did not owe federal taxes the previous year and isn’t expected to file taxes next year on her income.
How to Fill Out W-4 as a College Student
College students are not exempt from federal taxes and will need to file form W-4 like all other taxpayers. While you may be eligible for an IRS education credit, it does not affect your filing status on your W-4.
Example: Juan is a 22-year-old college student. He works two part-time jobs, doesn’t have children, and has never been married. His parents claim him as a dependent on their taxes. Juan must file a W-4 for each of his jobs using instructions for multiple jobs. Since he is a dependent, he must also claim 0 allowances.
How to Fill Out W-4 after Getting Married
If you are married and want to file jointly, select the option on line 1(c). If both spouses work, use step 2 to determine how much to withhold.
Example: Tom and Joanne are married and want to file jointly on their taxes to lower their tax liability. Both Tom and Joanne have full-time jobs. They should each fill out a W-4 selecting married filing jointly on line 1(c) and use step 2 to determine their withholding amount.
How to Fill Out W-4 for the Biggest Paycheck
To receive the largest paycheck you should withhold as little as possible on your W-4. Claim all deductions you can and do not withhold any extra using line 4(c). You can also reduce the amount withheld in step 4 by reducing income from another job. While you will receive the biggest paycheck with these methods, you may owe the IRS more at the end of the year.
How to Fill Out W-4 with Exempt Status
To file as exempt, you must write “EXEMPT” on line 4(c). Only a small category of employees may claim Exempt status. Per IRS rules, you are eligible only if you’ve paid no federal income taxes the previous year AND if you expect to have no federal income tax liability for the current year.
Claiming exempt status is only valid for one year. To continue claiming exempt status the next year, eligible employers must submit a new Form W-4 with “EXEMPT.”
Example: Xavier did not pay any federal income taxes in 2022 and does not expect to have any federal income tax liabilities for 2023. He may write “EXEMPT” on line 4(c) of his Form W-4.
How to Fill Out W-4 to Break Even
In the past, taxpayers could select two exemptions on their W-4 to break even for the year, meaning they would not over or underpay the IRS. The IRS has discontinued this allowance in 2020. The best way to break even on your W-4 is to use the IRS Tax Withholding Estimator to determine what you owe and fill out your W-4 accordingly.
Example: Carlos is a single 30-year-old with one job who wants to break even so he does not owe taxes or get a refund when filing. He works one hourly job where he makes $30,000 per year. He uses the IRS calculator to determine that he should withhold $51 per paycheck based on his additional income, deductions, tax credits, and adjustments.
How to Fill Out W-4 for Pension
The IRS has a specific W-4 form for pension called a W-4P. The majority of the form is the same, but Step 2 changes to include income from a job and a pension or multiple pensions.
Example: Ray uses a Form W-4P to withhold federal income taxes from his periodic pension. Most of the steps in a Form W-4P are similar to those in the standard W-4. Step 2 allows Ray to specify whether he receives income from multiple sources, such as more than one pension or annuity or a combination of a job and a pension. Other steps of the form are identical in purpose but contain additional wording referencing pensions and annuities instead of just jobs.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Pregnant
If you are pregnant, you can only claim the child as a dependent after it is born. All other areas remain the same.
Example: Kelsey gave birth to her child in January of 2023 and is filing her taxes for 2022 in March. She does not mark the child as a dependent for her taxes in 2022 because the child wasn’t born until 2023.
How to Fill Out W-4 if I Have a Seasonal Job
Those with a seasonal job will need to fill out a W-4 but will only need to file taxes if they make more than the standard deduction for the year, which can be found in table 6 of IRS publication 501. If they make more than their standard deduction because of a combination of the seasonal job and another job, they will need to use step 2 of the W-4 to factor in the amounts made from both jobs.
Example: Erika was born on March 11th, 1997 and her filing status is single. According to Table 6 of IRS publication 501, the standard deduction that applies to her is $12,950. Erika earns $14,000 and must complete a W-4 for that year.
How to Fill Out W-4 for IHSS
A person who receives In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) is considered to be the employer for taxation purposes. If you receive IHSS services, you are required to fill out a W-4 for each client. If you have more than one client, the IRS considers it equivalent to having multiple jobs, in which case you will need to fill out the form’s Step 2.
Example: Viola receives in-home supportive services from a local organization. Because Viola is the person receiving the services, she is considered the employer. In Step 5, she must enter her name and address in the “Employers Only” section and use her IHSS case number as her EIN.
How to Fill Out W-4 as a Travel Nurse
Travel nurses must file tax documents in each state they work in, including their home state. To avoid being taxed twice, they should claim a tax credit in their home state for any income that is taxed in another state.
Example: Brynn is a travel nurse who lives in Kansas but traveled and worked in Mississippi, Colorado, Utah, and Illinois during the year. She must fill out her W-4 form for her home state, Kansas, as usual, following the directions based on her filing status. When she files taxes, she must file an income tax return for each state she worked in, reporting the income and paying taxes. She can then claim a credit with her home state for taxes paid to other states.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Getting Divorced
Once you are divorced you will file as single unless you qualify for head of household or get remarried within the same year. You must update your W-4 within 10 days of the divorce or separation.
Example: Jenna recently divorced and now qualifies as single. Previously she filed jointly with her partner, but now she must fill out a new W-4 by following the instructions for single filers.
How to Fill Out W-4 if Widowed
If your partner died within the past two years, you did not remarry, paid more than 50% of the cost of home upkeep, and you have a qualifying child, you are eligible for the Qualifying Surviving Spouse tax status on step 1(c).
Example: Lance’s spouse recently died and his qualifying child lives at his home for which he pays all of the bills. He does not remarry and files as a Qualifying Surviving Spouse using line 1(c) of the W-4.
Here are the answers to some common questions about correctly completing form W-4 based on your goals.
To be exempt you must have had no tax liability the previous year and expect no tax liability in the current year.
A qualifying child or relative that you financially support. A spouse is not a dependent.
W-4 allowances reduce the amount of income tax an employer withholds. They are not used on the 2023 W-4 form as they have been discontinued.
There is no expiration date for a W-4, but it is recommended to provide an updated form every year.
Your W-4 does not affect the amount paid towards Social Security.
Yes, the military uses W-4 forms for federal tax purposes.
Extra withholding is unnecessary but you may choose it to receive a larger tax return.
A W-4 is for federal income taxes. State income taxes require separate forms based on your state of residence or employment.
Yes, you must update your W-4 after marriage to ensure it accurately reflects your family situation and changes your tax rate to correspond.
Your employer will withhold more taxes than necessary if you do not change your filing status to married.
No, only one spouse may claim dependents on their individual W-4.
As a nonresident alien, you must still file a W-4. See IRS Publication 1392 for specific directions for your W-4.