April 15th marks the deadline for the tax filing status for individuals in the U.S. during tax time—a time that often strikes fear in people’s hearts. The basis for this feeling is fear of the unknown. Most have heard of the 1040 tax form by the time they need to file taxes for the first time, but many find it confusing and long.

That doesn’t have to be the case. In 2018, the 1040 form received an overhaul, making it shorter and easier to understand. But, of course, different schedules get attached depending on the individual’s needs and recent tax law changes. So read on for a definition of a tax return to paint a clearer picture. 

The tax return definition—simplified and explained

In plain terminology, the tax document is defined as paperwork filed with a tax authority to report income and pertinent expenses during the tax season. The U.S. tax season for individuals comes around yearly, between January and April 15th. Individuals file the 1040 tax return document to calculate tax liability or request a tax return for the overpayment. 

1040 tax return form example
1040 tax return form example

What are the sections on a tax return?

The 1040 tax form is divided into a couple of sections spanning only two pages. When filing taxes, to report extra information, attach additional forms called schedules. Schedule C is the most commonly used Schedule to report the loss or capital gains from a business venture. These pages include basic information such as taxable income, filing status, tax deductions, and more.

Filing status

The form starts with the filing status options, which are:

  • Single
  • Married Filing Jointly
  • Married Filing Separately
  • Head of Household
  • Qualifying Widow(er)

Once the filing status is selected, the form asks for personal information such as names, addresses, social security numbers, and whether you want to contribute to the presidential campaign. This information will match what the government has on file.


Below the filing status and personal information, the form asks whether you or your spouse, if filing jointly, can be claimed by someone else on their return. Again, this only needs an answer if it’s true, but if no one else can claim you or your spouse, it remains blank.


A spouse is listed in the filing status section, but this portion of the tax return forms asks for any other household members you or your spouse can claim. Children are a good example of who can be claimed on a tax return.


The income section starts about halfway through the first page and goes halfway down onto the second page. This 1040 section deals with providing income such as reported wages, salary, taxable interest, Social Security benefits, and other types of income.

Deductions are also listed in this section, such as student loan interest, business income deductions, charitable contributions, standard or itemized deductions, and other deductions from various schedules. 

Together, this will provide you and the total amount of taxable income and adjusted gross income.


The tax refund is one of the most looked-forward-to sections of the tax return. It will lead you to determine whether line 33 from the income section is more than line 24. If that is the case, line 24 is subtracted from 33 to determine the amount overpaid to the internal revenue service and owed back to the filer. Simply put, you’ve overpaid taxes and are due that money back.

Amount you owe

A not-so-fun section is where the filer calculates taxes owed to the internal revenue service. If line 33 is less than 24, the difference is the amount of tax burden the government wants to see by the deadline unless a payment plan is agreed upon.


The remainder of the form walks the filer through disclosing if someone filed on their behalf and signing the form before it gets submitted.

Who has to file a tax return?

Most individuals will need to file a tax return. The rule of thumb states that as long as your income is higher than a standard deduction, you must file a tax return between January and April 15th. Of course, pay attention to the filing status you want to claim and the deduction allowed for the year—for example, married filing jointly has a higher deduction than single. 

Taxpayers should pay attention to any changes during the tax year. Older taxpayers will have different rules when it comes to reporting wages and other income.

Do I need to file a tax return? by We Grow People

What happens if I make a mistake on my tax return?

Mistakes can happen, even on tax returns. If you find a mistake, like a misrepresented number or forgotten income, you can amend or, in other words, correct your tax return using form 1040-X since tax authorities will want to know. The 1040-X allows changes to the originally submitted form to different information, such as tax filing status, income, deductions, credits, or tax liability.

1040-X form is used to amend an individual's tax return
1040-X form is used to amend an individual’s tax return

When is the deadline for filing an income tax return?

Unless the IRS extends the deadline, the expected due date of the tax return is April 15th. However, if the date falls on a weekend, the deadline is extended to the next business day. Just in case, check out What If I Miss the Tax Deadline for My Tax Return?.

How can I track my refund?

Don’t worry about losing your tax returns.

For those filers who expect to get a refund, the anticipation is high. Thankfully, the internal revenue service built a refund tracker right on the IRS website. The tracker will request some personal information such as name, social security, and filing information before providing the filer with an expected date. 

What does surveyed tax return mean?

A surveyed tax return is one that was reviewed internally by the IRS. In many cases, the filer is unaware of the survey, and many tax returns never undergo the rigorous process, but it is designed to find any inconsistencies in a tax form.

What is the definition of a tax return transcript?

A tax return transcript is a document filers can request from the IRS once their 1040 is processed. The tax return transcript discloses the information provided by the filer to the IRS as proof of what the government received. However, it does not provide any changes made after the originally submitted Form 1040.

What is the definition of an amended tax return?

An amended tax return is one where changes were made after the IRS processed the original 1040. This process is completed using form 1040-X to assist the filer in fixing mistakes or providing missing data from form 1040. 

Frequently asked questions

What is the IRS definition of earned credit and unearned credit when filing a tax return?

The earned income tax credit, the EITC for short, is a refundable tax credit for households that are considered low to moderate-income workers. For those who fall within the strict guidelines, the tax credit is fully refundable to provide a much-needed boost to those struggling.

What is the definition of a delinquent tax return?

When an individual who met the criteria to file a tax return by April 15th failed to do so, they are considered delinquent. Significant IRS tax penalties are associated with delinquent tax returns unless a request for a tax extension is made to the IRS.

See also: A Definitive Guide to Commonly Missed Small Business Tax Write-offs

In closing

Tax season is stressful for many households, especially those who believe they might owe taxes to the government. However, throughout the past couple of years, the form itself has become easier, making simple tax returns a breeze. For those who may be worried about past tax returns, don’t hesitate to check out Tax Audit Prep: The Absolutely Non-Scary Guide.

Summing it up, the tax return definition means filing income and expense information to the IRS using form 1040. Of course, other forms called schedules help the process in certain situations, but the basic idea is to make sure the IRS has all of your information sent in by no later than April 15th.

Interested in resources that will help you monitor the financial health of your company? Check out our mammoth list of 45+ bookkeeping resources!

Agata Kaczmarek has held a passion for writing since early childhood. A professional writer for many years, Agata specializes in writing articles and blogs focused on finance as someone who holds a Master’s Degree in Accounting and Finance.

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