How Federal Taxes Work

By: Dave Roos

Personal Income Tax: Refund or Payment?

When you file your federal income tax return, be sure that you claim enough withholding allowances to cover your tax obligations.
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When you get a job, one of the first things your employer will ask you to do is fill out a W-4 form. The main purpose of the form is to figure out how many withholding allowances you qualify to claim. The more allowances you claim, the less federal income taxes are withheld from each of your paychecks.

Everyone gets one allowance, but there are additional allowances for your spouse and dependents, and even more if your spouse doesn't work and your dependents qualify for child tax credits. A family of four with a nonworking spouse and two young children can claim up to 10 allowances. This means more money in the family's pocket during the year. The same family could claim fewer allowances, but then they would pay more income tax with each check and receive the overpaid taxes in one lump sum as a tax refund.


If you regularly receive a refund greater than $1,000, you should check your W-4 and make sure you're claiming enough allowances. If you regularly pay taxes equaling more than 10 percent of your total income, then you should claim more allowances [source: TurboTax]. If you're self-employed, then nothing is automatically withheld from your earnings and you simply pay estimated income taxes four times a year. If your employer has already withheld income taxes, that total will appear on your W-2. You can subtract that amount from your total income taxes.

The last way to lighten your tax load is through tax credits. Tax credits directly reduce your tax liability, unlike deductions and exemptions, which only reduce the amount of income subject to tax [source:].

There are two types of tax credits: nonrefundable and refundable. Nonrefundable tax credits can reduce your taxes to zero, but not below zero (a refund). Examples include the Child Tax Credit, Education Credit, Dependent Care Credit and Retirement Savings Contribution Credit. Refundable credits can reduce your tax burden below zero, adding up to a refund. They include Earned Income Credit (for low-income filers), First-Time Homebuyer Credit and the Health Coverage Tax Credit.

After you've subtracted all available credits and withholdings from the total taxes you owe, you will have either a positive or negative number. A positive number means you still owe income taxes. A negative number means a refund.

If the IRS owes you a refund, it can mail you a check or direct deposit your money in up to three different accounts.