How to Fill Out a W-4 Form

How do I fill this out?

When your life situation changes and/or a new year rolls around, it’s a good idea to revisit the amount of money that is being withheld from your paycheck for taxes. This is done by filling out a Form W-4. It’s been a while since I had to complete a W-4 Form for an employer, but I will try to explain how the W-4 Form works and how to determine those crazy allowances.

What is a W-4 Form?

The Form W-4 is simply a form created by the IRS to help your employer collect information needed to take out the proper amount of federal income taxes from your paycheck. What you put on this form will have a direct effect on the amount of money you get in the form of a refund or have to pay to the IRS next year. It doesn’t have an effect on how much you actually pay in taxes for the year. It just affects how much is withheld to be used towards paying your taxes. Make sense?

Form W-4

The Form W-4 and instructions can be downloaded here: Form W-4

The form uses a series of questions to determine the amount of allowances you have. Important: allowances have nothing to do with exemptions. “Allowance” is just another semi-confusing term the IRS came up with to mean “a reason to take less from your paycheck for taxes”. Therefore, the more allowances you claim, the less you employer will tax from your paycheck. Like I said above, this is all reconciled at the end of the year, when you file your tax return and calculate the difference between your withholding and your actual taxes due.

Who is Exempt from Withholding

If you write “exempt” on your W-4, you are telling your employer that you do not want any money withheld from your paycheck for federal taxes. You must meet the following two criteria to file exempt: (1) you were refunded all of your withholding in the previous year because you had no tax liability; (2) you expect to have no tax liability in the current year. If you were claimed as a dependent by someone else, then you might be able to file exempt. You just need to follow this flow chart to determine you ability to file exempt:

W-4 Form Exemption Chart

How to Fill Out the W-4 Form Allowances

Unless you give the IRS a reason to take less from your paycheck, they will take the amount they feel is necessary based on your income and your marital status. This is where the allowance come into play. Allowances can be made for:

  • you
  • your spouse
  • your dependent(s)
  • your child care expenses
  • your expected child tax credits
  • your itemized deductions (use worksheet on back)

The more allowance you put down, the less they will take out in withholding. Knowing this, people usually take one of two difference approaches:

1. One or Zero Allowances – These people want the maximum taken out of their paycheck. They aren’t worried about giving the government an interest-free loan for a year. They just want a forced savings account and a big refund at the end of the year. If this is you, then regardless of what the true answers to the allowance questions are on the W-4, just make sure that the total (the amount on Line H) is one or zero.

2. The Correct Number of Allowances – Some people choose to aim for zero difference between the amount they have withheld and the amount that have to actually pay in taxes. These people will answer the W-4 Form allowance questions honestly and precisely how their situation dictates. If this is you, then you just need to walk through each of the questions in detail and even consider the additional worksheets on the back for itemized deductions and two-income earners. You will also need to complete a W-4 Form each time your situation changes, not just once a year.

A third approach to avoid would be claiming a bunch of allowances that aren’t true. You will end up owing a lot of money come tax filing time and you will potentially face penalties for underpaying. You don’t want to do that.

I’ve always been a big fan of the second approach. But that’s just me. I’m a tax nerd. If you have any specific questions about the allowances, use my contact form to ask. I’ve run into trouble in the past when I first joined the ranks of the two-income earners. See how I resolved that situation.

Here’s more from the IRS about withholding federal income taxes:

When was the last time you completed a W-4? What changes did you make?

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Last Edited: May 2, 2013 @ 3:57 pm
About Philip Taylor

Philip Taylor, aka "PT", is a husband and father of two. He created PT Money back in 2007 to share his thoughts on money and to meet others passionate about managing their finances. All the content on this blog is original, and created or edited by PT. Read more about Philip Taylor, and be sure to connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or view the Philip Taylor+ Google profile.

71 comments
jen
jen

I did my taxes online and when I put in the money info for my husband and myself we owed, this is what we do, we both work I let them take out the maximum he let them take out whatever is required plus extra from his paycheck and we still owe, what you think we have done wrong on the w4 or should have done ?

kevinz
kevinz

The last couple years that I have done my taxes, I have owed money.  I recently asked my employer to find out what I claim for exemptions on my W4, and was told that I have been filed as married with 0 exemptions.  I am not married and have never been married.  I also found out that the original W4 that they have on file for me says single with 0 exemptions, which is the way I filled out my W4.  However, for some reason I have been in the system as married, which has affected my return.  Since this was their fault, and not mine, is there anything that can be done about this?

Shelly
Shelly

My 17 yr old daughter just got her first job.  It is very part-time - less than 10 hrs per week.  She will be claimed as a dependent.  I have asked 3 different accountants what she should claim on her W4 and unfortunately got 3 different answers!  0..1...and 5....were the answers.  PLEASE help.  We are so confused.

Missy
Missy

Hello,

Thanks for letting us know that we can put a one or zero for allowances. I was told that if you're claiming yourself, you must put at least a one. But I just got a new job and my employer asked me to put a zero for allowances. Just wanted to make sure I wasn't told the wrong thing. I am single and don't have any other jobs, so I guess this works for me.

Thanks,

Missy

Jim
Jim

Hi.

 I just got married in October and wanted to update my W-4 so my withholdings are correct.  I did the Two-Earners worksheet, and line 9 says to divide line 8 by the number of pay periods remaining in 2013, which is 3 at this point (I get paid every other week).  That means the additional amount withheld will be close to $3000, which sounds too high.  Should I instead divide line 8 by the total number of pay periods during the year (26), which would give me an additional withholding amount around $300 instead?

Thanks!

Jim

robert
robert

Hey,

I just got my first paycheck from a new job and got $2078 out of  $3000. I'm getting about 30% reduced in taxes. When I filled out 0 the W-4, I wrote down 0 for allowances. I'm thinking I might've filled it out incorrectly. I'm single, 20 years old, no spouse, no dependents, not head of household, no child stuff either. 

Thanks in advance

amanda
amanda

Hello!

I was wondering with the first two lines (a,B) on my W-4 if i neeed to1for both of them. Id want my status to be 1/0 on my pay stubs/tax returns. please and thank you!

amanda

Ramosgt3
Ramosgt3

I work for a restarunt as a waiter i make in wages 5,238.00 and tips i make 10,242.77 ,thats wat my pay stub says ,,,,,,,,i claim 2 of my sisters one is 9 and the other 4. I filled out a w4 and i filled out the EXMPT part,,,,and the bookkeeper wont take it ,,,do you think his doin something fishy illegal ,he says im making to much money but thats BS,,,,Federal takes away $113.00 twicw a month and the state takes away $33.00 twice a month @Philip Taylor 

guest
guest

Clear and to the point...Thank you.

powers74
powers74

How about this: Line 6 on the two earners/multiple jobs worksheet comes out to -3. How does that work? These forms are so friggin' confusing. Does freelance count as a third job? I'm married with one child. My wife works too.

moondog6
moondog6

hi, I started a new job and my employer has me submitting a w4, but my mother is still claiming me as a dependent. Should I include her address on my w4? should I continue to be her dependent?

patrick1
patrick1

hi i got custody of my 11 yr brother in june should i be claiming 1 on my w4  and will i receive any taxcredits this year  i want to get the most out of ycheck w/o having to pay anyn at the end of the year

bbs
bbs

Hi. Married with two kids. I'm starting a new job, and my wife also works. My youngest goes to daycare. I would like to know how to fill in the form so that more taxes are taken out of my paycheck. Obviously, at the end of the year we are filling jointly married and claiming our kids as dependant and deducting childcare expenses. What would you suggest?

Guest
Guest

Hi. I'm a freshman in college and I just got a job through the Federal Work Study program. My mom claims me as a dependent and I will be making about $1500 and I do not have a savings account. Am I exempt ? Do I have to file taxes this year? Thank you!

Guest964
Guest964

If you're a tax nerd then answer me this, is there a law requiring me to pay income taxes and file a tax return? If there is, show it to me because I dont plan on filing my return next year to an unconstitutional entity.

martin11
martin11

hello, i´ve got two jobs...the first job they took from my paycheck per week just like..i earn 267 bucks and they took from me just around 5 bucks which is great...but the problem is in my second job they gave me a form W-4 i need to fill it in i dont know what do i need to write to a section from A to H even i dont know what can i write to the second page...im going to work there just like 25 hours per week...im an international student..im going to stay here just for the summer...could you give some advice what exactly do i need to write to the form W-4 when i dont want them to take me out the maximum from my paycheck...thank you

therealMrsBeck
therealMrsBeck

Hello.  I have already had the amount that I expect to owe for state taxes collected (year to date amount from pay stub), and I want to update my W-4 so that no state tax is collected for the remainder of the year.  Last year I received a $2200 refund from my state.  Can you advise me as to how to update my W-4 to accomplish this?

SD MN
SD MN

Hi there, I am single and share an apartment with my girlfriend who is working as well. I just started my job this June and filled out my W4 as fed 3 and state3. Does this sound right? I am not good with this taxes and stuff. All I want is not to be owed by gov by the end of the year. Please advice me. Thank you.

D Barton
D Barton

Hi there, thanks so much for this informative article. I also have a question about filling out this W4. I just got married and am filling out a new W4. My husband is military, we have no children and I only have one job. We make roughly the same amount (he makes ~3,000 more than I do/year). Should I write 1 or 0 on C? Also, can he claim me as a dependent?

 

I know you laid it out pretty clearly, but I just want to make sure I am doing this correctly. Thank you!

hc
hc

Hi Phil, I am seeking for your advice. I am 23, single, no kids, living at home with parents. I’ve been working full time for the past 5 months and will continue to work for at least one year. I have been claiming 0 allowances for the past 5 months. What is the correct total number of allowance I should be claiming? If it is not 0, should I change it now to the correct number or should I let it stay the same. Please advise Thank You

eden
eden

Hello,

 

I am legally married but have been separated from my husband for 5 years and i have been filing my taxes as a head of house hold for the past years (as i am the sole provider for my daughter that lives with me though out the year).  My question is on line 3 of W-4 form what will i put down? Single or Married, but withhold at higher single rate.

 

Thanks.

 

Trudy
Trudy

I'm a graduate student, just graduated and am starting a new job in July. I'm single with tons of school debt and no kids. Should i claim "1" or "0" for allowances? Is that all i really need to fill in on the form and leave the other questions like exemptions and additional withholdings blank?

rissa84
rissa84

I have two minor children so I normally claim 2 on my w4, can I change it to 3 if I want to include myself from now on?

Nancy
Nancy

I have a son who is going to college in the fall and will be working a job for the summer.  He lives with us.  I was just wondering what would be the best for him to claim?

Thank you.   Nancy

Steve
Steve

What if you fill out a w4 and your employer takes no taxes out of your paycheck, is this legal? If it is legal, how do you know how much to with hold?

Mammapanda
Mammapanda

I have a question. My husband just started a new job. I do not work. We have two children. How should he fill out his W4 form?

emtambolero
emtambolero

Hi! Thanks for the article. I'm actually also confused. I'm single but I'd like to claim my mom as my dependent. What should I put on the total # of allowances? I never had any liabilities. I had a refund for all of my taxes.

 

Thanks!

goodgirl
goodgirl

hello i am so confused on my W4!!! I claim head of household i am single and have 3 kids do i put that i am exempt?

AnthonyPapendick
AnthonyPapendick

Hello Phillip I am trying to figure out what to claim. I curently claim 1 for my son. My fiance is prego with another child so i know when they are born i can claim them also as an exemption. My question is what should i be claiming to where i will not owe money at the end of the yr im claiming 1 now should i be claiming myself as well since im trying to maximize my current paychecks

BrieannW
BrieannW

Hey! My employer doesn't give his employees W4 forms, so I went online and printed one, filled it out and gave it to him. He told me in no uncertain terms that he does what he wants on our paychecks. He files everyone as single with 0 (zero) allowances. I told him that I want to claim 3 allowances and he ,again, said that he does what he wants to do and gives us some paper at the end of the year and we then do what we want to do. (his English is broken, so I'm not sure what he was talking about, but assume he means our w2's.) But that he would keep my form on file. Can he do this? If not, what can I do about it?

frieden70
frieden70

Hey, 

 

Thanks for the resource.

 

I have a question about my filing.

 

I'm a 24, soon to be 25 year old single male and right now my filing status is 0.  Nobody can claim me as a dependent but when I talked to my boss' accountant (it's a very small business) she said that I should be claiming 0 since I don't own a house.

 

Based on what I see on the W4, I should be claiming 1 on the first line and 1 on the second and should therefore be claiming 2 is that correct?

 

I obviously don't want them taking out any more money than they have to and I don't want to owe the gov't anything substantial either.  Given that scenario, is there anything I should be doing differently with my filing status?

 

Thanks!

Cenzo21
Cenzo21

Hey phil, I make 13K a yr. I pay my own rent and bills and I have one dependent what should I claim on my w4? Right now I'm claiming 4 and my job isn't taking taxes out.

Denise
Denise

Me and my husband both filed 1, 1 on our taxes for 2011. This was advised when we switched our status in 2010 from single to married. We file jointly when we do our taxes. When we had a CPA do our taxes a few weeks ago they informed me that we would owe over 1,500 dollars. Are we filing wrong? We also paid out $5,500 in interest on our mortgage, plus another $3,000 in medical bills. I also pay for about 4 extra health insurance and disability insurance that is taxed from my paycheck. Shouldn't this help make a difference in us owing instead of receiving a refund back? Thanks, Denise

Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor moderator

@robert Hi Robert. Yeah, to be more accurate (given the info you provided) you should have used 2 allowances.

robert
robert

I meant to say "When I filled out the W-4,..."

Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor moderator

Are your parents going to claim you as a dependent? How much do you make? Those are factors in determining if you can claim exempt. If you're not exempt then just fill the form out according to your honest answers to the questions. Based on the limited info you provided I'd say that has you putting 2 in line H. Anything less will likely give you a bigger tax refund. Anything more will let you keep more of your money now and not get as big a refund. Hope that helps.

My latest conversation: Taking Time Off Work When Your Company Culture Doesn't Support It

Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor moderator

 @AnthonyPapendick Hi, Anthony. Based on the info you provided I would say you would need to claim one or two allowances for yourself and claim an additional allowance for each of your dependents. Wait until the second child is born though before making that change. So, you should be claiming two or three now and then add another allowance when your next child is born. Congratulations!

Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor moderator

 @BrieannW This is an interesting and unfortunate situation. I called the IRS (on hold for 20 mins) and they did not have a good answer. They basically told me what Publication 15 says, which is that an employer should ask employees to complete the W-4 and withhold taxes according to the W-4.

 

The IRS could not direct me to a rule or statute that says they HAVE to withhold according to your wishes. It would seem they are only interested in the employer withholding *something* vs the correct amount or an amount which you direct.

 

They actually suggested you call the Department of Labor. Their number is 866-487-2365. Good luck. I'd love to hear what they tell you.

hc
hc

@Philip Taylor Thank you for your prompt response. My parents will not be claiming me as dependent. I am currently working as a full time temp and am on a quarterly contract (I am expecting to work more than a year duration) and with that being said, I am averaging out to about 24,000 per 4 months so I expect to make about $72,000 in a year. Should I change my current total allowance from 0 to 2 or change it to 2 at the end of December/ early January? I appreciate your input.

Philip Taylor
Philip Taylor moderator

 @Philip It's really a toss up, hc. The W-4 and allowances are just a tool to help you pay your taxes over time vs at the end of the year. It has absolutely no effect on how much tax you actually pay...just the timing. It's your call, pay it now or pay it later. I'm a big fan of just filing out the W-4 with honest answers that results in $0 owed/returned at the end of the year. In your case, that honest answer would be 2 on line H.