Read this before you do your taxes

Many Americans look to get an early start on their taxes in order to get their refunds as quickly as possible. But if you try to get your tax returns prepared and filed without knowing some key information, you can end up wasting time and going through the burdensome task of amending your taxes later on. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you do your taxes.

Tax forms with glasses, a pen, and a calculator.

Image source: Getty Images.

1. Do you have all the forms you'll need?

By now, you should have gotten your W-2 forms from your employer, and most 1099s should be available by late January to mid-February. Yet some forms come later than that, and in some situations, the companies responsible for sending you your tax forms aren't as on the ball as you are. If that's the case, jumping the gun can result in your making difficult corrections, or even starting all over if you get an unanticipated tax form in the mail during or after you've prepared your return.

You can avoid trouble by looking at all the tax forms you got last year and seeing if you're missing any relating to this year's tax season. In some cases, you won't get the same form because the tax issue involved a one-time event. Also, if you've changed jobs or financial providers, you might get multiple forms, or alternatively, not receive a form you got last year. If you can't account for a form you expected to get, then be careful in starting your preparation, and definitely think twice before you file.

2. Are you aware of any major tax law changes?

It's critical to know about any big changes in the tax laws that have taken effect over the past year. Otherwise, you won't understand when your taxes don't work out the same way they have in the past, or you'll miss out on key tax breaks that could have reduced your tax bill.

For 2016, the biggest potential tax law change affects those who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit or the Additional Child Tax Credit. Beginning this year, the IRS isn't allowed to send out a refund to taxpayers who claim either of these two credits until Feb. 15. That shouldn't stop you from filing your return whenever it's ready, but it does mean that you might not get your refund as quickly as those who don't claim those credits. Given how important the credits are for taxpayers who claim them, it's not worth it for most people to give them up just to avoid any possible refund delay.

RELATED: 10 things we've all said while filing our taxes:

10 things we've all said while filing our taxes
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10 things we've all said while filing our taxes

"It's only January, I have plenty of time!"
You're relaxed, you're casual, what even are taxes anyway? You don't care! It's so far away that filing taxes isn't even remotely on your radar, to be honest.

Photo credit: Getty

"The imminent act of filing is upon me and I literally have nothing ready..."
Tax season is now approaching and that creeping anxiety about getting everything done on time is starting to set in. It's essentially biting at your heels and you know you have to get moving.

Photo credit: Getty

No words. Just emotional paralysis.
You're screwed. You need to start doing your paperwork but you physically do not know where to even begin. It's time. It's happening.

Photo credit: Getty

That anxiety you felt creeping in earlier? Now it's full-fledged onset. This stage is often accompanied by screaming out loud, pulling hair, crying, etc.

Photo credit: Getty

"Wait, did I get all of my papers in? Did I check that one box correctly? Does it look like I'm trying to evade some of these taxes? What if I go to jail? Can I go to jail for that? WHO WILL FEED MY DOG WHEN I AM IN JAIL?!"

It's like handing in an exam in school and wishing you could grab it back and double check your answers one more time.

Who was that celebrity you heard about that went to jail for tax evasion? Because now you're convinced that's totally going to be you.

Spoiler alert: as long as you did everything to the best of your knowledge and ability, you probably won't go to jail. And even if you do, you'll find someone to walk your dog.

Photo credit: Getty

"I got this, I'm almost done, a few more papers and I'm in the clear. I just have to pound through the rest of it. Go me!"

"Go you" is right! Now you're on cruise control and you're on track to get everything done well and on time. You're unstoppable in the delight of the world that is tax filing.

Photo credit: Getty

"Thank god that's over with, now I can relax! What to do with all this stress-free free time!"
Finally, relief. Your papers are filed and sent out into the universe. It's off your back at last. Now on to more important things, like Netflix.

Photo credit: Getty

"When is my return coming? Is this going to be my life for the rest of my life? Yep, it is. So about that return..."
Now, you wait. You want that money. And the inevitable truth that your life will now be a neverending cycle of filing taxes and waiting for your return.

Photo credit: Getty

"SCORE my return was so much better than I expected! I'm buying a new dress. Or five. Probably five, why not?"
You're on a total life-high now. The possibilities of what you can spend your return on seem endless and even if you don't, having a nice bonus hunk of cash in your pocket feels pretty good. It made all of that stress completely worth it.

Photo credit: Getty

"Honestly filing wasn't even that bad this year. And now I don't have to think about it anymore. Well at least not for another year. But no use in worrying about that now!"
Alas, acceptance. You know you'll fall victim to the vicious cycle again when next year rolls around. But truthfully, you wouldn't have it any other way. Okay, you obviously would. But you'll never change your procrastinating ways!

Photo credit: Getty


3. Will you need help with your taxes?

Many people choose not to try to prepare their taxes on their own, and there's a variety of help available. You can always pay a professional accountant or tax preparer, but there are also some free resources, such as the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offered through the IRS.

If you want help, the key is not to wait to get things lined up. You should make sure you have all the necessary documents you'll need to get the help you're seeking, but keep in mind that the VITA program is very popular and typically has fixed dates on which volunteers are willing to help. Similarly, tax professionals often have their schedules fill up, especially as the tax filing deadline approaches. Get an appointment lined up and know how you'll get your taxes done, and that will put you on schedule for a successful tax season.

4. Do you want to file electronically?

Closely related to the question of getting help on your taxes is whether you expect to file your returns electronically. The benefits of e-filing include faster processing, more accurate information on your return, and quicker refunds. Some preparers, including volunteers with the VITA program, offer electronic filing as part of their tax preparation packages. However, others charge additional fees for e-filing, so it pays to know upfront what your provider's terms are.

Even if you prepare your taxes yourself, there are sources to help you file electronically. IRS Free File is a service that lets many taxpayers use convenient e-filing. Most tax preparation software offers electronic filing options, as well.

It's smart to get an early start on your taxes. But before you file, make sure you've done everything correctly so you won't get an unpleasant late surprise from the IRS. By asking these four questions, you'll be in better shape to get through your tax preparation as painlessly as possible.

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