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Do I Have to File a Federal Tax Return?

You must file a federal income tax return if you are a U.S. citizen or permanent resident (including of Puerto Rico) if your income exceeds thresholds set by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The IRS adjusts the individual income tax filing threshold each year for inflation.

It is important to note that not everyone who exceeds the income threshold for filing a return must pay federal income tax. You may be eligible for deductions or tax credits that reduce the tax you owe to zero. For example, many low-income taxpayers with children are eligible for the child tax credit, which will reduce their tax payments by $2,000 per qualifying child.

The tax filing requirements discussed below will help you determine whether you need to file a federal income tax return for the 2023 tax year. The requirements below apply to traditional wage earners who are over the age of 14 and can't be claimed as a dependent on someone else's return. Please check out the linked IRS webpage if you fall into one of the following categories: dependent, under 19 years old, self-employed individual, or non-U.S. citizen.

Advantages of Filing

Even if the IRS does not require you to file, it is generally a good idea to file an individual return anyway. Your filing information is key for determining your eligibility to claim certain tax benefits that are only available to filers. A refundable tax credit is paid to you, even if you have no tax liability. Probably the most popular refundable credit is the earned income tax credit (EITC), available to those with low to moderate incomes.

Other reasons to file, even if it's not required, include:

  • Getting money back that your employer withheld from your paycheck
  • Increasing your Social Security benefits by ensuring that all of your income is included
  • Making it easier to secure financial aid to help with education expenses, as you may be required to supply completed tax forms

Who Must File?

If you are a U.S. citizen or resident, whether you must file a return usually depends on three factors: your gross income, your filing status, and your age. However, there are some special tax situations (discussed below) in which you will be required to file, even if your gross income is below the filing threshold.

Gross Income

The table below illustrates filing requirements based on an individual's gross income. The IRS defines gross income as the earned and unearned income an individual receives in the form of money, goods, property, and services that are not tax-exempt. It also includes foreign income earned from sources outside the United States while a person was a nonresident U.S. citizen (even if they are allowed to exclude all or part of it on their federal return). 

Your taxable income is your gross income plus your unearned income minus any adjustments or deductions. If you are receiving Social Security benefits, you will be taxed on those benefits if you receive substantial income in addition to your benefits.

If you are married, and your permanent home is in a community property state, half of any income described by state law as community income may be considered yours. This affects your federal taxes, including whether you must file if you do not file a joint return with your spouse. See Publication 555, Community Property, for more information.

Filing Status

Your filing status depends on whether you are filing as single, married filing jointly, or head of household. A taxpayer may file as a head of household if they are single and paying more than 50% of supporting a qualifying person, usually a dependent child. Your filing status is determined on the last day of your tax year, which is Dec. 31 for most taxpayers.

Age

If you are 65 or older at the end of the year, you are usually allowed a higher amount of gross income than other taxpayers before you must file (see the table below). You are considered to be 65 at the end of the tax year if your 65th birthday is on or before Jan. 1 of the following year.

2023 Filing Requirements for Most Taxpayers

Filing status Age at end of 2023 Minimum gross income at which return must be filed
Single Under 65 $12,950
  65 or older $14,700
Married filing jointly Under 65 (both spouses) $25,900
  65 or older (one spouse) $27,300
  65 or older (both spouses) $28,700
Married filing separately Any age $5
Head of household Under 65 $19,400
  65 or older $21,150
Qualifying widow/widower Under 65 $25,900
  65 or older $27,300  

Who Must Always File?

There are several situations in which an individual is always required to file a tax return:

  • Received more than $400 in self-employment income, which includes income from a partnership
  • Required to pay the alternative minimum tax
  • Received wages from which an employer did not withhold Social Security or Medicare taxes
  • Received distributions from a health savings account (HSA)
  • Received advance payments of the premium tax credit for enrolling in a health insurance marketplace
  • Required to pay additional taxes on qualified retirement plans

Have More Questions? Speak to a Tax Lawyer

If you have questions about whether you are required to file a federal income tax return, a local tax attorney can help. A tax attorney is skilled in tax preparation and can help you answer difficult questions on how IRS rules and tax laws apply to your personal situation.

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Next Steps

Contact a qualified tax attorney to help you navigate your federal and/or state tax issues.

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