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How Much Do You Have to Make to File Taxes? Income Guidelines Explained

Shirel Berchowitz Updated: March 6, 2024 • 5 min read
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Key Points:

  • Every professional, from newly employed to seasoned professionals, must know how to navigate the complexities of tax filing requirements.

  • Knowing current tax filing obligations is crucial to avoid penalties and make informed financial decisions.

  • Here's how you can protect yourself against unexpected tax liabilities and optimize your financial planning.

Every professional, from newly employed to seasoned professionals, must know how to navigate the complexities of tax filing requirements. To ensure compliance with the law and maximize refunds, tax laws aren't static; they change with the economy, policy, and public needs. Given this dynamic nature, knowing current tax filing obligations is crucial to avoiding penalties and making informed financial decisions. By staying on top of these changes, you can protect yourself against unexpected tax liabilities and optimize your financial planning.

Protect yourself against unexpected tax liabilities and optimize your financial planning.

What Are Tax Filing Requirements?

Tax filing is an essential process where individuals and entities report their income, deductions, and credits to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to calculate their tax liability for the year. It's not just about determining how much one owes the government; for many, it's also about claiming refunds for overpaid taxes. The requirement to file a tax return primarily hinges on several key factors, which include your gross income, the required filing threshold for your situation, and your filing status. Here's how each of these factors affects your filing requirement:

  1. Gross Income: This is the total annual income you receive before any deductions or taxes are removed. It includes income from employment, self-employment, interest and dividends, and other sources. If your gross income exceeds a certain threshold, you are required to file a tax return.

  2. Required Filing Threshold: The threshold varies depending on your age, filing status, and type of income (earned vs. unearned). It's essentially the minimum gross income you can earn without being required to file a tax return. This threshold is adjusted periodically for inflation and tax law changes.

  3. Filing Status: Your filing status significantly impacts the required filing threshold and is divided into five main categories:

    • Single: Generally, if you are unmarried, divorced, or legally separated according to your state law, you file under this status.
    • Head of Household: This status applies if you are unmarried and have paid more than half the cost of maintaining a home for yourself and a qualifying person, such as a child or dependent, for more than half the year.
    • Married Filing Jointly: If you are married, you and your spouse can file a joint tax return. This status usually offers a higher income threshold before you are required to file.
    • Married Filing Separately: Married couples can file separately, often resulting in a lower income threshold before filing is required.
    • Qualifying Widow(er) with Dependent Child (Qualifying Surviving Spouse): If your spouse died during one of the previous two tax years and you have a dependent child, you might be able to use this status, which offers a higher income threshold similar to the married filing jointly status.

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Each factor determines whether you must file a tax return for a given year. The IRS updates the specific thresholds for each filing status and situation annually, so it's important to refer to the latest tax guidelines or consult with a tax professional to understand your filing requirements accurately.

Filing Status Condition Min. Income to File Taxes
Single Under age 65 $13,850
Single Age 65 or older $15,700
Married Filing Jointly Both spouses under age 65 $27,700
Married Filing Jointly One spouse under age 65 and one age 65 or older $29,200
Married Filing Jointly Both spouses age 65 or older $30,700
Married Filing Separately All ages $5
Head of Household Under age 65 $20,800
Head of Household Age 65 or older $22,650
Qualifying Surviving Spouse with dependent child Under age 65 $27,700
Qualifying Surviving Spouse with dependent child Age 65 or older $29,200

Special Circumstances That Affect Filing Requirements

  • Self-Employed Individuals: Must file a tax return if net earnings from self-employment are $400 or more.
  • Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT): Individuals subject to AMT must file regardless of their income level.
  • Special Taxes: Those owing special taxes on retirement plans, health savings accounts, or other specific tax situations must file.
  • Social Security and Medicare Taxes on Unearned Income: Individuals receiving unearned income such as interest, dividends, or capital gains may need to file to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.
  • Dependents' Filing Requirements: Dependents, such as children or financially supported relatives, may need to file based on specific criteria, like unearned income over $1,100 or earned income above $12,950 in 2023.

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Potential Benefits When Filing a Tax Return

Filing a tax return, even when not strictly required by income thresholds, can offer several potential benefits to taxpayers. Here are some key advantages:

  • Refund of Withheld Taxes: If taxes were withheld from your paycheck or you made estimated tax payments during the year, you might be due a refund. The only way to receive this tax refund is to file a tax return.

  • Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC): The EITC is a refundable tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families, particularly those with children. If you qualify, you could receive a substantial refund by filing a tax return, even if you do not owe any tax.

  • Child Tax Credit (CTC): Taxpayers with dependent children may qualify for the CTC, which can reduce their tax bill on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Part of this credit is refundable as the Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC), meaning you could receive a refund even if you don't owe taxes.

  • American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC): For eligible students or their parents, the AOTC offers a credit for qualified education expenses paid for eligible students. A portion of this credit is refundable, potentially refunding those who qualify.

  • Recovery Rebate Credit: If you didn't receive the full amount of any economic impact payments (stimulus checks) you were eligible for, filing a tax return allows you to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit to receive those funds.

  • Protect Against Identity Theft: Filing your tax return early can also protect you from tax-related identity theft. If a thief files a tax return in your name before you do, it can lead to significant delays and complications in receiving your refund.

  • Qualify for Loans or Financial Aid: A tax return is often required to apply for loans, including mortgages and student loans. It serves as proof of income and financial status, which can be crucial for loan approval.

  • Future Social Security Benefits: For self-employed individuals, filing a tax return and paying self-employment tax contributes to your Social Security record, which affects future benefits.

  • State Refunds and Credits: Some states offer refunds, credits, or benefits only if you file a state tax return. These can include state-specific tax credits, property tax rebates, and more.

Consequences of Not Filing

  • Legal and Financial Penalties: Failing to file taxes can result in significant penalties, including fines and interest on taxes owed. In severe cases, it can lead to legal action or even imprisonment.
  • Loss of Refunds: Not filing may mean missing out on potential refunds. There's a three-year window to claim a refund; after that, unclaimed refunds become the property of the U.S. Treasury.
  • Impact on Future Loans: Non-filing can affect your credit score and loan eligibility, as lenders often require proof of tax filing.

*Advice for Non-Filers: If you haven't filed for past years, it's advisable to do so as soon as possible. The IRS offers programs to help individuals catch up on filings, potentially reducing penalties.


Understanding your tax filing obligations is crucial for legal compliance and financial health. With tax laws constantly evolving, staying informed and seeking professional advice when necessary can help navigate the complexities of tax filing, ensuring you meet your obligations and take advantage of potential benefits.



Do I need to file taxes if I only received Social Security benefits?

Generally, if Social Security benefits were your sole income for the year, you may not have to file a tax return. You will need to determine if your total income exceeds the IRS filing requirements if you have additional income, such as interest, dividends, or capital gains.

Can I be exempt from filing taxes if I'm a student?

Whether you are required to file taxes as a student depends on many factors, including your income level, whether you are claimed as a dependent, and the type of income you receive (e.g., wages, scholarships, grants).

How does filing taxes change if I'm self-employed?

When an individual earns $400 or more from self-employment, they must file a tax return. In addition to income tax, self-employment tax covers Social Security and Medicare taxes. This includes income from freelancing, consulting, or running a business.

What happens if I make less than the standard deduction?

You might not need to file a tax return if your income is below the standard deduction. However, if taxes were withheld from your paycheck, you may be eligible for a refund if you file.

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