How to Fill Out a W-4 Form (Without Errors that Would Cost You)

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

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.

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.

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

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  1. My son (has dependent son) is filling out his W4 for a job and I went through everything that applies to him and I came up with 6 exemptions.  Is this correct?

  2. Guest514 says:

    I just recently got married and my husband has two part time jobs and I have a full time job.  I want to know what I should claim as an allowance to have the right amount taken out to where I don’t owe money but don’t have more than necessary taken out.

  3. 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 ?

  4. No penalties.

  5. Philip Taylor says:

    kevinz  Kevin, did you have tax penalties?

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

  10. 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

    • I meant to say “When I filled out the W-4,…”

    • Philip Taylor says:

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

  11. 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!

  12. 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 

  13. Clear and to the point…Thank you.

  14. 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.

  15. 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?

  16. 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

  17. 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?

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. martin11 says:

    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 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

  21. therealMrsBeck says:

    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?

  22. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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

    • Philip Taylor says:

      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:

      • @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 says:

           @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.

  25. 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.

  26. 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?

  27. 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?

  28. 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

    • Philip Taylor says:

      It depends on how much he makes and if he will be claimed as a dependent on your return. He could possibly claim Exempt.

  29. 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?

  30. Mammapanda says:

    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?

    • Philip Taylor says:

      This is a pretty straightforward situation. Just follow the instructions on the form. Thanks.

  31. emtambolero says:

    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.

  32. emtambolero says:

    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.

    • Philip Taylor says:

      Hi. You are welcome! If you’d like to claim your Mom as a dependent on your return then you need to make sure she qualifies as a dependent first. You won’t be able to determine that till the end of the year based on the rules. Given that, you should fill out your W-4 as you would as a single person with no dependents.

  33. Philip Taylor says:

    You only put exempt if you are truly exempt. Follow the chart above to determine.

  34. goodgirl says:

    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?

  35. Philip Taylor says:

     @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!

  36. Philip Taylor says:

     @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!

  37. AnthonyPapendick says:

    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

  38. Philip Taylor says:

     @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.

  39. BrieannW says:

    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?

  40. frieden70 says:

    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?

    • Philip Taylor says:

       @frieden70 Given your stated goals, you should be claiming 2, yes. 1 or 0 allowances will get you a bigger refund, meaning, the govt will withhold too much and have to give you a bunch back at tax time.

  41. Philip Taylor says:

     @Cenzo21 Sounds about right to me, Cenzo21. You shouldn’t end up owing any taxes given your income and dependent.

  42. 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.

  43. 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

  44. I am an employer that has a Huge stack of extra 2011 W-4 forms and didnt know if it was necessary to have any current employees that re do paper work or new hires to use a new 2012 W-4 form or is it ok to re-use these.  For instance i know I9 does not expire until 8/31/2012 

  45. I am single with a 1 year daughter, my income is $60000/year how shoudl I fill the lines A-H on the W4 form for best results?

  46. I am single

  47. how to fill out Employment Tax Form w-4 for example  for single with no kids and have one job and want to claim myself only … so what should i put in line A and H and line 5 ????

  48. hi im a single mom just got a new job salary 34,000 i also have a second part time job i alwys seem to file 3(single, single w/ 1job, and head of household) then at tax time i claim my child. i alwys think im not filling out my w4 correctly. iwas told this year file 1 then halfway through claim my child. any suggestions?

  49. I just  did my 2011 taxes and owe $464 on Federal.  I have no mortgage, I rent and am single.   My current excemption is 2.  I want to make the necessary change on W-4 so I don’t owe or owe very little for 2012.  I’m not sure if it’s more or less excemptions. 

  50. MadMax6920 says:

    If you filed exempt for one month can u put it back to normal after that?

  51. hello i have a question ,  just started a new job and my husband and I file jointly what is the correct way to fill out my w4 so that they take enough but not to much? should i do married at the higher single rate claiming zero, or can i do married claiming one ?

  52. I’m trying to help my mother figure out her tax situation. She is legally separated from my dad as of two years ago. She’s a low income earner- only made a bit over 12,000 last year. I did her taxes myself since she doesn’t have any complex tax issues. I’m wondering if she’s needing to change her filing status but even with the w-4 worksheet I’m unsure if she should be 1 or 0. Last year for her 12,000ish earnings only $8 was taken out and if it weren’t for her large medical and dental bills she would have owed $308. This made NO sense to me, which got me to thinking her filing status must not be accurate anymore. We’d both rather have the IRS take a little more out of her paycheck rather than owe $300+ at the end of next year again. She qualifies to file as single beacuse of the legal separation and isn’t anyone’s dependant and has no dependants. The answers for the w-4 worksheet A-H are 1,1,0,0,0,0,0,2. I’m thinking she must have her w-4 set to exempt from when she was still married since they’re not taking out anything? Also thinking that I should make sure she’s set to 0… or 1? Just not sure which one’s more appropriate for a low-income single person without dependants.

  53. My husband started his job on Dec.28, 2010 and filled out his W-4 totally wrong! Since he pays all the bills and his check is direct deposit, he never looks at his check unless something in the bank is incorrect. Well, Feb.17, 2012, he got a shocker! He found out his company was not holding out ANY Federal W/O. The Payrol represetative emailed me a copy of his W-4and for whatever reason (I do ot believe he knows how to fill it out for he’s always worked ontract work) he put down “EXEMPT” in #7 and from A-G was 1,1,1,1,1,2, he put nothing in “G” at all. I have been on social security disability(not SSI) since Sept. 2010 and I don’t think my unearned income will count but please tell me what you think is going to happen? He made like $24,000.00 and on my S.S. benefits total up to $12342.00. We have an outreach ministry and fall under the umbrella of our church also, so I ampretty sure we can deduct mileage, all my medicine and doctors appts, vehicle upkeep for that outreach, etc…how would you suggest we do his w-4 to correct this issue? Our incomes are as stated above with one 17 year old (does not work and in school). Thank you:)

    • Philip Taylor says:

      @Davidjc He definitely makes too much to file exempt, according to the IRS chart above. He should likely just claim 3 allowances (himself, you, and your son/daughter). Based on his income, they will withhold very little, though. Because with deductions and credits, you and your husband should pay very little tax if any. No need to panic. You guys should do okay. Good luck!

      • @Philip Taylor Do you mean file 3 Exemptions on W-4 in the H and #5 section? Also,how do you think we would do if we just filed standard easy instead of doing all credits or should we just do the extra work and plan to file for our deductions? Also, this year past (current tax year 2011), our son moved out and daughter moved in but her mother claimed her (our agreement just to get her), so therefore, it will just be me and my husband filig this year, of course, I am a dependant I believe. We are so nervous and DO NOT want to mess up! God Bless you and thank you so much for your help already and for anything you have to offer to these further questions.

        • Philip Taylor says:

           @Davidjc 3 allowances, yes. Not sure about your other question. Sorry. Go see H&R Block. They are free for a time.

  54. Hey Phil, I am a 23 yr old married young man and need help with filling out the W-4 form. Both me and my wife work, I work two jobs, my wife one, in 2011 we made about 22k, we have no kids at the time, we file jointly and i make more than she does but we wanted to know for example, how should we fill out our W-4 form in our situation, how would it look? Id really appreciate the advice tremendously because it seems like our taxes withheld for 2011 was very little to nothing, i need some wisdom 🙂

  55. I just recently started working and we have 2 kids. At first I wasn’t going to claim my kids, but once I received my first check, I realized the big chunk they are taking out. So i decided to claim one and my husband will claim the other. So now, we have to file separately right, would it better that way or file together. Thank you

  56. Phil,

    Im married and have one child that is currently in daycare. Both my wife and I work full time so I want to be sure that the goverment takes only what is required (opt 2 in your text above) and not too much more. I am currently claiming 4 on my W-4: 1 for myself, 1 for my wife, 1 for my child, and 1 for dependant care expense (line F) totaling 4 allowances.

    After this went into effect I noticed the goverment taking quite a few less dollars than they have in the past. I just want to be sure that I dont owe a huge bill at the end of the year and am a bit confused on how the dependant care expense allowance comes into play come tax season.

    Any help is appreciated.


  57. highlyfavored says:

    I plan on starting some per diem work this month. My husband works and will be claiming myself and our two children when he files for taxes this year. Please advise on how I should complete my w4 for the per diem work that I’ll be starting.

  58. highlyfavored says:

    I will be starting some per diem work this month. My husband works and plans to claim myself and our two children when he files for taxes this year. I would appreciate any advice on how to complete the w4 form for my per diem work.

    • Philip Taylor says:

      @highlyfavored How often do you expect to work? How much do you expect to make with this job this year?

  59. Philip Taylor says:

    Thanks for your comment/question, Sam. Looks like you’ll both need to enter 1, 0, 0, 2, 0, 0, 2, 5 for lines A through H, respectively. This has you both taking allowances for yourself, your kids, and your child tax credits. You could further refine this based on your itemized deductions (mortgage interest, charity, property taxes, etc.) and childcare expenses (if any), but that should get you where you need to be. The important thing is for each of you to avoid taking an allowance for each other (lines B & C) since you both work.

    • hanisankar says:

      HI Philip,
         I am working in US and my wife and two kidsa are in India. Can you claim them as depenedant in W4? If so what will be my allowance?