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This article was fact-checked by our editors and Tolla Tu, tax specialist with Tax®.
The tax code has specific rules about who needs to file a federal income tax return. If you didn’t earn a lot of money, you may be below the minimum income to file taxes.
While you’re generally not required to file a federal income tax return if you earn less than the filing threshold, it could still be in your benefit to file. For example, if your employer withheld federal income tax from your wages, filing a return is the only way to get that money back. And you may be eligible for refundable tax credits — like the earned income tax credit — but you have to file a return to claim them.
Let’s look at some things to consider before you decide to skip the filing process.
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What is the minimum income to file taxes?
If your gross income for a tax year is low enough, you don’t have to file a federal income tax return. But the exact threshold depends on a few factors.
- Your filing status — For example, the threshold for single filers is much lower than for married couples filing jointly.
- Age — Filing thresholds are generally higher for people 65 and older across all filing statuses.
- Dependency status — Children and other dependents have different filing thresholds that are also based on the type of income they have (earned or unearned).
- Employment status — If you’re self-employed, other rules may apply.
Here are the basic filing requirement thresholds for 2019 taxes.
Typically, the income thresholds match the standard deduction amounts for each filing status, with the exception of married filing separately.
Because the IRS generally adjusts standard deduction amounts for inflation each year, you can also expect filing thresholds to change from year to year. Standard deduction amounts have increased for 2020 — so when it’s time to file your 2020 taxes in 2021, the filing thresholds will likely be different then, too. Here are the standard deduction amounts for 2020.
- Single: $12,400
- Married filing jointly: $24,800
- Married filing separately: $12,400
- Head of household: $18,650
- Qualifying widow(er): $24,800
The rules for adults and dependent children
The rules change when someone can claim you on their tax return. In this scenario, you may have to file a federal tax return even if your income is lower than shown in the chart above. The thresholds look different because the IRS separates your gross income into two categories — earned income and unearned income.
Earned income is the money you make by working for someone else or running your own business. Your unearned income includes investment income — like interest, dividends or capital gains. It may also include cancelled debt, taxable Social Security benefits, pensions and more.
The rules for when a dependent must file can be confusing, so be sure to read the threshold rules carefully. They’re generally included in the instructions for each year’s Form 1040. You can also learn more in IRS Publication 501.
Can you report a dependent’s income on your own return?
In most cases, you can’t just include a dependent’s income with yours on your own federal income tax return. Multiple factors determine if a dependent must file. And if your dependent isn’t capable of filing their own return (for example, if they’re a minor), then it’s your responsibility to file a separate return on their behalf. Learn more about when a dependent must file a federal income tax return.
What are other reasons you may be required to file?
There may be other situations in which you’re required to file. The IRS specifically calls these out in the 1040 instructions.
- Special taxes — If you’ll owe the alternative minimum tax, tax on a retirement plan, household employment taxes, Social Security or Medicare taxes on income you didn’t report, write-in taxes (like uncollected Social Security or Medicare), or you have to repay a tax credit you received in a previous year (called recapture taxes)
- You (or your spouse if you’re married filing jointly) received distributions from a health savings account, Archer MSA or Medicare Advantage MSA
- You’re self-employed and had net earnings from self-employment of $400 or more
- A church or qualified church-controlled organization paid you wages of $108.28 or more
- You, your spouse or a dependent were enrolled in a marketplace insurance plan and you received advance payments of the tax credit intended to help pay your premiums
- You, your spouse or a dependent received an advance payment of the health coverage tax credit
- Income under section 965, which deals with foreign income
Reasons to file (even when you’re not required to)
Even when you’re not required to file a federal income tax return, there might be reasons to file anyway.
The first is a federal tax refund. You may be eligible for a federal tax refund if any of these situations apply.
- Your employer withheld federal taxes from your paychecks
- You made quarterly estimated tax payments
- You overpaid on last year’s tax liability
The only way to get a refund is to file a return.
You may also qualify for tax credits that you can only get if you file a return. If you don’t file a federal tax return, you can’t claim the earned income tax credit, child tax credit, credit for other dependents or credits for education. Some of these are refundable tax credits, which means they still offer a refund even when the credit amount is more than the total taxes you owe.
Not everyone is required to file a federal income tax return. In fact, you usually don’t have to file if you’re below the income threshold. But if you overpaid your federal income taxes, or qualify for federal tax credits, it may be worth filing to get any refund you may be owed.
If you’re feeling confused by the rules, the IRS offers a couple of handy resources. You can plug your details into its Interactive Tax Assistant or learn more in the 1040 and 1040-SR instructions. For additional guidance, don’t be afraid to speak with a tax professional.
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Relevant sources: IRS: Here are reasons for people to file a 2019 tax return | 1040 and 1040-SR Instructions for 2019 Tax Year | IRS News Release: IRS provides tax inflation adjustments for tax year 2020 | IRS: What is Earned Income? | IRS: Unearned Income | Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute: U.S Code, Internal Revenue Code | IRS: Credits and Deductions for Individuals | IRS: Do I Need to File a Tax Return?
A tax specialist with Tax®, Tolla Tu has international experience in accounting, tax, finance, banking and consulting. She holds a bachelor’s degree in financial management from Beijing University of Chemical Technology, a master’s in corporate finance from Central University of Finance and Economics as well as a Master of Professional Accountancy from Montana State University. You can find her on LinkedIn.