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One of America’s most hated rituals is the annual filing of a federal income tax return. Collecting receipts and W-2s, picking a tax preparer or tax software, muddling through mind-numbing forms and instructions, paying the IRS: It’s all a giant pain in the neck! But do you really have to go through all that and file a return this year?

Maybe not.

Not everyone is required to file a federal tax return each year. Depending on your income, age, and filing status, you might not need to file a return this year. (Returns that you file this year are for the 2023 tax year and are due April 15, 2024, for most people.) And not having to file taxes and deal with that whole mess could save you a lot of time and money.

On the other hand, even if you don’t satisfy the basic tax filing requirements, there are certain special circumstances under which you still need to file a return. Plus, even though you might not be required to file a tax return, sometimes you’ll want to file one anyway.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry. We’ll walk you through the basic federal income tax filing requirements, exceptions to the general rules, and situations requiring a return no matter what—as well as some reasons why you should file a return even if you don’t have to this year.


Related: Best Tax Software for 2024

Do I Have to File Taxes Based on My Income?

form 1040 taxes

Millions of people ask this question around this time each year. For the vast majority of Americans, the answer is “yes.” However, if your 2023 gross income is below a certain amount, you generally aren’t required to file a 2023 federal income tax return this year.

Use the table below to see if your 2023 gross income is above or below the basic tax filing requirements threshold for your filing status and age. If your income is at or above the threshold amount, you’re required to file a 2023 tax return this year. If your income is below the applicable threshold, you might be off the hook. (Note: The thresholds that apply if you can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return are discussed later.)

Filing StatusAge at End of 2023Gross Income Filing Threshold
SingleUnder 65$13,850
65 or older$15,700
Married Filing JointlyUnder 65 (both spouses)$227,700
65 or older (one spouse)$29,200
65 or older (both spouses)$30,700
Married Filing SeparatelyAny age$5
Head of HouseholdUnder 65$20,800
65 or older$22,650
Surviving SpouseUnder 65$27,700
65 or older$29,200

Gross income means total income received in the form of money, goods, property, and services that isn’t exempt from tax. This includes taxable income from sources outside the U.S. or from the sale of your primary home.

Only taxable Social Security benefits count as gross income for purposes of the filing thresholds. Since at least some Social Security income isn’t considered taxable income, people receiving Social Security benefits must first determine the taxable portion of their benefits before using the table above. (Most retirees who rely solely on Social Security benefits for their retirement income won’t have to file a return, since none of their Social Security income will be taxable.)

In addition, for married couples filing jointly, if you didn’t live with your spouse at the end of the taxable year and your gross income was at least $5, you must file a return regardless of your age.

Relation to Standard Deduction

As it turns out, the gross income thresholds are the same as the 2023 standard deduction amounts, except for married couples filing separate returns. That’s because the income thresholds are generally tied by law to the standard deduction and personal exemption amount for each filing status (the personal exemption is $0 from 2018 to 2025 thanks to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017).

Why? Because your taxable income will be reduced to zero, and you won’t owe taxes for the year anyway, if your gross income is less than the combined total of your standard deduction and personal exemption (when there is one).

However, the federal tax code doesn’t apply the same rules for married couples filing separate tax returns. Instead, the filing requirement is based only on the personal exemption, which is currently $0. The IRS bumped the threshold up to $5 so that separate filers with no income can avoid the tax filing requirements, but that’s still far short of the amount it would be if the standard deduction was part of the equation.

Related: What’s Your Standard Deduction This Year?

Dependents’ Filing Requirement Thresholds

Since the standard deduction amounts are different if you can be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return, the tax filing requirements are different, too. As a result, the following table should be used by dependents to determine if a 2023 federal income tax return must be filed.

Marital StatusAge 65 or Older or Blind?Must File If Any of the Following Apply
SingleNoUnearned income over $1,250
Earned income over $13,850
Gross income more than the larger of (a) $1,250, or (b) up to $13,450 of earned income, plus $400
SingleYesUnearned income over $3,100 ($4,950 if age 65 or older and blind)
Earned income over $15,700 ($16,450 if age 65 or older and blind)
Gross income more than the larger of (a) $3,100 ($4,950 if age 65 or older and blind), or (b) up to $13,450 of earned income, plus $2,250 ($4,100 if age 65 or older and blind)
MarriedNoUnearned income over $1,250
Earned income over $13,850
Gross income at least $5 and one spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions
Gross income more than the larger of (a) $1,250, or (b) up to $13,450 of earned income, plus $400
MarriedYesUnearned income over $2,750 ($4,250 if age 65 or older and blind)
Earned income over $15,350 ($16,850 if age 65 or older and blind)
Gross income at least $5 and one spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions
Gross income more than the larger of (a) $2,750 ($4,250 if 65 or older and blind), or (b) up to $13,450 of earned income, plus $1,900 ($3,400 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Unearned income includes taxable interest, ordinary dividends, capital gain distributions, unemployment compensation, taxable Social Security benefits, pensions, annuities, and distributions of unearned income from a trust
  • Earned income includes salaries, wages, tips, professional fees, and taxable scholarship and fellowship grants
  • Gross income is the total of unearned and earned income

Related: Does My Child Have to File a Tax Return?

Exception for Children With Unearned Income

There’s an exception to the general tax return filing requirements for a dependent child with unearned income. If certain conditions are met, the child’s parents can report the income on their tax return, which means the qualifying child doesn’t have to file a return. Parents electing this option must file Form 8814 with their federal income tax return.

To qualify for this election, all the following conditions must be satisfied:

  • The child was under age 19 (or under age 24 if a full-time student) at the end of the tax year
  • The child’s only income was from interest and dividends, including capital gain distributions
  • The child’s gross income was less than $12,500 (amount for 2023 tax year)
  • The child is otherwise required to file a tax return
  • The child isn’t married filing jointly
  • There were no estimated tax payments for the child
  • There was no federal income tax withheld from the child’s income

Related: Kiddie Tax: What Is It, Who Must Pay, How Much + More

Do I Have to File Taxes for Other Reasons?

questions and answers large

Even if your income isn’t high enough to trigger a tax return filing requirement, you still might have to file a tax return for other reasons.

Here’s a rundown of situations under which you’re required to file a federal return regardless of your income.

“Special Taxes”

You must file a federal return if you owe any of the “special taxes” reported on Schedule 2 (Form 1040). This include the following special taxes:

  • Alternative minimum tax
  • Additional tax on a qualified retirement plan (including an IRA or 401(k) plan) or other tax-favored account (including 529 plans, health savings accounts, and ABLE accounts)
  • Social Security or Medicare tax on tips not reported to your employer or on wages you received from an employer who didn’t withhold these taxes
  • Uncollected Social Security, Medicare, or railroad retirement tax on tips reported to your employer or on group-term life insurance and additional taxes on health savings accounts
  • Household employment taxes
  • Recapture taxes (e.g., paying the government back for tax breaks you weren’t qualified to take or for the improper use of funds in a tax-favored account)

HSA, Archer MSA, or Medicare Advantage MSA Distributions

A federal tax return must be filed if you (or your spouse if you’re married filing jointly) received distributions from a health savings account, Archer MSA, or Medicare Advantage MSA.

Self-Employment Income

Self-employment income above a certain amount can trigger a filing requirement. You must file a tax return if you have net earnings from self-employment of at least $400. You also must file Schedule SE and pay any self-employment tax due.

Church Income

A federal return must be filed if you received $108.28 or more in wages from a church or qualified church-controlled organization that’s exempt from employer Social Security and Medicare taxes. If this is the case, you must also file Schedule SE and pay any self-employment tax due.

Related: Student Loan Interest Deduction: How Much, Eligibility + More

Premium Tax Credit Advance Payments

If you, your spouse, or a dependent bought health insurance coverage through a state or federal marketplace and received advance payments of the premium tax credit, then you must file a tax return. The amount of advance payments received for health coverage is shown in Part III (Column C) of Form 1095-A, which the marketplace will send you.

Foreign Income

Under Section 965 of the U.S. tax code, American shareholders must pay taxes on previously untaxed foreign earnings of certain foreign corporations. You must file a tax return if you’re required to pay taxes under Section 965. You must also file a return if you pay taxes owed under Section 965 in installments or elected to defer those taxes.

Related: 30 Tax Statistics and Facts That Might Surprise You


Should I File Taxes Even If I Don’t Have To?

bank notes tax

So, you don’t have to file a tax return. That’s great! But what if the IRS owes you a tax refund? Would that make filing a tax return worth the time, money, and effort?

If you qualify for one or more refundable tax credits, the IRS could be sending you a sizable tax refund if you file a tax return this year. The same could be true if you had income tax withheld from your paycheck (or other income) during the year, or paid estimated taxes for the 2023 tax year.

Here’s more information about the reasons why you ought to file taxes even though you’re not required to file a return.

You Can Claim Refundable Tax Credits

Refundable tax credits are the best tax break you can get. There are two types of credits: non-refundable and refundable credits. All tax credits reduce your overall tax bill on a dollar-for-dollar basis. However, non-refundable credits can only reduce the tax you owe to $0, while refundable credits can actually reduce your tax bill below $0. If that happens, you’ll get a tax refund from the IRS.

So, make sure you file a return if you can claim tax credits from the following list:

Taxes Were Withheld From Your Paycheck or Other Payments

If income taxes were withheld from your paycheck or other payments to you, they’re treated like a refundable tax credit. In other words, they can trigger a tax refund if you file a tax return to reclaim them. For 2023 tax returns, you can claim income taxes withheld on Line 25 of your Form 1040.

The amount withheld during the year will be reported on various forms that you’ll receive in the mail. For instance, federal taxes taken out of your paycheck can be found in Box 2 of the Form W-2 you receive from your employer. Taxes withheld on dividends, interest income, unemployment compensation, retirement plan distributions, and certain other types of income are shown in Box 4 of the related Form 1099. Withholding from Social Security benefits are recorded in Box 6 of Form SSA-1099. Other types of withholding will be shown on other forms.

You Paid Estimated Taxes

If you paid estimated taxes for 2023, then you should file a tax return in order to get that money back. Like withheld income taxes, the year’s estimated tax payments can also trigger a refund when reported on Line 26 of your Form 1040.

The IRS won’t send you anything showing how much you paid in estimated taxes for the year. You’ll have to refer back to the 1040-ES forms you filed or the receipt received for electronic payments to get that information.

Does the IRS Offer Any Help?

IRS help taxes

Yes, the IRS has an online tool that helps you determine whether you need to file a tax return. IRS Publication 501 also provides additional information about filing obligations for U.S. citizens living abroad, residents of Puerto Rico, people with income from U.S. possessions, deceased people, and more.


Rocky has been covering federal and state tax developments for over 25 years. During that time, he has provided tax information and guidance to millions of tax professionals and ordinary Americans. As Senior Tax Editor for Young and the Invested from Jan. 2023 to Feb. 2024, Rocky spent most of his time writing and editing online tax content.

Before working for Young and the Invested, Rocky was a Senior Tax Editor for Kiplinger, where he wrote and edited tax content for Kiplinger.com, Kiplinger’s Retirement Report and The Kiplinger Tax Letter. Prior to his time at Kiplinger, Rocky was a Senior Writer/Analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. In that role, he managed a portfolio of print and digital state income tax research products, led the development of various new print and online products, authored white papers and other special publications, coordinated with authors of a state tax treatise, and acted as media contact for the state income tax group (where he was quoted as an expert by USA Today, Forbes, U.S. News & World Report, Reuters, Accounting Today, and other national media outlets). Before that, Rocky was an Executive Editor at Kleinrock Publishing, which provided tax research products for tax professionals. At Kleinrock, he directed the development, maintenance, and enhancement of all state tax and payroll law publications, including electronic research products, monthly newsletters, and handbooks.

Rocky has a law degree from the University of Connecticut and a B.A. in History from Salisbury University.