Do I Need to File Taxes? A Basic Checklist

Kate Underwood

Writer

For most of us, filing taxes is required. If you earned money at some point during the year, the government expects to receive a cut of that income. 

The federal government has laid out specific guidelines about who’s required to file a tax return. Of course, your income level has a lot to do with it, but your age, filing status, and other factors determine it as well. Here’s a rundown of what you should know — and why you might file a federal income tax return this year even if you’re not required to. 

Spoiler alert: If you received income, you probably should file taxes. Even if you don't technically need to.

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  • Most U.S. citizens and resident aliens who earned income in the past year are required to file a federal tax return — or face penalties or legal action.
  • Whether you have to file taxes depends on your income, filing status, age, and dependency.
  • You may want to file even if not legally required, in order to receive a tax refund or take advantage of tax credits.

. . .

Who Needs to File a Tax Return? 

In general, if you earned above a set amount last year, you’ll be required to file a federal tax return. However, this depends on how much you earned, whether you’re married or single, and whether you’re under or over age 65. 

Another factor is whether you have any dependents. For example, you'll see the term “head of household” used in income tax — this refers to someone who is unmarried but supports and houses a dependent.

If you met the minimum gross income requirement

If your gross income was above the amount designated based on your age and filing or marital status, you must file a tax return. Check the most recent version of IRS Publication 501 for specific details. 

Tax-filing thresholds typically increase year over year, so re-verify these amounts every tax season. For the 2023 tax year, if you earned at least this amount in gross income, you are required to file:

  • Single filers under 65: $13,850
  • Single filers age 65 and up: $15,700
  • Head of household, under 65: $20,800
  • Head of household, 65 and up: $22,650
  • Married filing jointly, both under age 65: $27,700
  • Married filing jointly, one is 65 or older: $29,200
  • Married filing jointly, both are 65 and up: $30,700
  • Married filing separately, all ages: $5
  • Qualifying surviving spouse under 65: $27,700
  • Qualifying surviving spouse 65 and up: $29,200

Even if someone else can claim you as a dependent, you may need to file a return. Levels of both unearned income (such as dividends and interest) and earned income apply, so review the “Dependents” section on IRS Publication 501 to be sure.

For example, for the 2023 tax year, if you’re single, dependent, under age 65, and not blind, you need to file if you had:

  • Unearned income of at least $1,250
  • Earned income over $13,850
  • Gross income over the greater of either $1,250 or your earned income up to $13,450 plus $400

As another example, if you’re a married dependent with at least $5 in gross income and a spouse who files separately and itemizes deductions, you’re required to file. 

Some parents may be able to claim their dependent child’s unearned income on their own tax return, which would mean the child wouldn’t have to file. 

Be sure to check the most up-to-date IRS information on when dependents need to file a return.

If you fit certain special conditions

The IRS’s Table 3 in Publication 501 lists many conditions that would require you to file a return:

  • You owe special taxes reported on your Form 1040, Schedule 2 (this may include household employment taxes, alternative minimum tax, Social Security or Medicare tax on unreported tips, and others)
  • You or your spouse received Archer MSA, Medicare Advantage MSA, or health savings account distributions
  • You earned at least a net of $400 in self-employed income
  • You earned at least $108.28 from a church organization exempt from employer Social Security and Medicare taxes
  • You received advance premium tax credit payments, shown on Form 1095-A
  • You have a net tax liability under Section 965

If you received certain forms from the IRS

If you received Form 1099-B or a substitute statement, and the amount shown in box 1d would mean you have to file, and box 1e is blank, then you should file a return. 

MORE: A Guide to Tax-Filing Deadlines and Extensions

Who Doesn’t Need to File a Tax Return?

Typically, if you didn’t earn the minimum gross income threshold, then you don’t need to file a return. Also, if your only income was from Social Security payments, you may not need to file a tax return.

However, up to 85% of Social Security benefits may be taxable — check with the IRS on the guidelines for that based on whether you file separately or married filing jointly, and what the income thresholds are. Social Security payments that might be taxable are monthly retirement, survivor, and disability benefits.

And if you have other taxable income besides your Social Security benefits, such as dividends, interest, self-employment income, or wages, you'll need to file.

Why You Might Want to File a Return Even If You Don’t Need To

Even if you don't have to file a tax return, you may want to, since filing a tax return can also benefit you. 

If you qualify for a tax refund

The biggest reason to file an optional tax return is probably to get a refund. The IRS doesn’t issue automatic refunds, so take a look at your pay stubs and get to work.

You may have had federal taxes withheld from your paychecks during the year. If you did so, but your total earnings were below the standard deduction for your age and filing status, you can file to get all of the taxes you paid refunded to you. 

If you’re eligible for valuable tax credits

You may qualify for tax credits, and the only way to take advantage of programs like the earned income tax credit is to file a tax return. 

If you're eligible for any of the following tax credits, the IRS recommends filing a return:

  • Earned income tax credit
  • Additional child tax credit
  • American opportunity credit
  • Credit for federal tax on fuels
  • Premium tax credit
  • Credits for sick and family leave

To build Social Security benefits

If you’re self-employed, you can file a tax return to ensure self-employed income is factored into your total Social Security benefit. 

For credit reasons

The IRS notes that there are a few credit-related reasons to file even if not required to. Accurate tax returns and paying any owed tax on time will help keep your credit strong. Filing tax returns also clarifies your income, which may benefit you if applying for a loan or financial aid. 

Final Thoughts

You likely need to file a tax return — most of us do. But even if you aren't legally required, you may want to do so anyway. You could be entitled to a tax refund or be eligible for tax credits, neither of which you'll receive if you don't willingly file. Plus, filing can help you to maintain a good credit history in the eyes of the IRS and credit bureaus.

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Author picture

I'm an award-winning lawyer and personal finance expert featured in Inc. Magazine, CNBC, the Today Show, Business Insider and more. My mission is to make personal finance accessible for everyone. As the largest financial influencer in the world, I'm connected to a community of over 20 million followers across TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I'm also the host of the podcast Erika Taught Me. You might recognize me from my viral tagline, "I read the fine print so you don't have to!"

I'm a graduate of Georgetown Law, where I founded the Georgetown Law Entrepreneurship Club, and the University of Notre Dame. I discovered my passion for personal finance after realizing I was drowning in over $200,000 of student debt and needed to take action-ultimately paying off my student loans in under 2 years. I then spent years as a corporate lawyer representing Fortune 500 companies, but I quit because I realized I wanted to have an impact; I wanted to help real people and teach them that you can create a financial future for yourself.

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Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.

Advertiser Disclosure

Our aim is to help you make financial decisions with confidence through our objective article content and reviews. Erika.com is part of an affiliate sales network and receives compensation for sending traffic to partner sites, such as MileValue.com. This compensation may impact how and where links appear on this site. This site does not include all financial companies or all available financial offers. This in no way affects our recommendations or article content.