Filing Requirements

Not everyone must file a tax return, but some of those people should. If withheld taxes or estimated payments are greater than tax liability, then you must file to obtain a refund or to apply excess payments to the next tax year. People who can receive a payment from the government because of one or more refundable tax credits should also file. Refundable credits include the earned income credit, additional child tax credit, the refundable portion of the American opportunity educational credit, health insurance premium tax credit, and the credit for federal tax on fuels.

Filing Requirements Based on Income

Most people are required to file a tax return because the requirement kicks in when income reaches a very low level — too low for most people to live on. This is because the government needs to collect money from as many people as possible, so anyone who earns what Congress decided was enough, even though few people can live on such low incomes, must file a return and pay taxes.

The filing requirement income thresholds are generally equal to the personal exemption plus the basic standard deduction, and, if applicable, the additional standard deduction, although there are exceptions. For instance, spouses filing separately must report income if it is greater than their personal exemption. If you are eligible for more than 1 filing status, then it makes sense to choose the filing status that yields the lowest tax.

Filing Requirement Income Thresholds
Filing Status Age at Year-End Income
2017 2016 2015 2014
Single< 65 $10,400 $10,350$10,300$10,150
≥ 65 $11,950 $11,900$11,850$11,700
Head of
household
< 65 $13,400 $13,350$13,250$13,050
≥ 65 $14,800 $14,900$14,800$14,600
Married
filing jointly
Both spouses < 65 $20,800 $20,700$20,600$20,300
One spouse ≥ 65 $22,050 $21,950$21,850$21,500
Both spouses ≥ 65 $23,300 $23,200$23,100$22,700
Married
filing separately
any age $4050 $4,050$4,000$3,950
Qualifying widow(er)
with dependent child
< 65 $16,750 $16,650$16,600$16,350
≥ 65 $17,850 $17,900$17,850$17,550

Filing Requirements for Dependents

There are also special filing requirements for dependents, depending on the taxpayer. These are the figures for 2015(Source: https://www.irs.gov/publications/p17/ch01.html#en_US_2015_publink1000170418):

Single dependents:

Married dependents:

Filing Requirements Based on Tax Liability or the Need to Report Information to the Federal Government

There are a few special situations where you may also have to file a return, regardless of income:

When Filing is Desirable, but Not Required

In some cases, you may wish to file a tax return even if it is not required:

Tax Brackets

Below is a table listing the upper limits for the taxable income brackets, which applies to income after subtracting personal exemptions and other tax deductions. Each bracket span starts at the upper income limit for the lower bracket and ends at the specified amount for that bracket. So, for instance, for 2018, the 10% bracket applies to an income range from 0 to $9,525, while the 12% bracket applies to the following income range: $9,525 < Income ≤ $38,700.

The new Republican tax policy, passed at the end of 2017, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, has changed the tax brackets for 2018 and afterwards. Congruent to the Republicans' tax objective to benefit the wealthy, most of the benefits in the change to tax brackets go to those who earn more than $200,000. The marriage penalty has also been eliminated for all tax brackets, except the top 2.

The table below lists the upper limits for the income tax brackets. Remember, these income limits are based on taxable income, not gross income.

Note, too, that even if your income in 2018 is the same, or nearly the same, as it was in 2017, the increase in the standard deduction and the elimination of personal exemptions, plus other tax changes may place you in a tax bracket different from what you expected.

Upper Limits for Taxable Income Brackets
Tax
Brackets
10% 12% 22% 24% 32% 35% 37%
2018
Single $9,525 $38,700 $82,500 $157,500 $200,000 $500,000 Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH $13,600 $51,800 $82,500 $157,500 $200,000 $500,000
MFJ,
QSS
$19,050 $77,400 $165,000 $315,000 $400,000 $600,000
MP
2 2 2 2 2 1.2 1
Tax
Brackets
10% 15% 25% 28% 33% 35% 39.6%
2017
Single$9,325$37,950$91,900$191,650$416,700$418,400Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH$13,350$50,800$131,200$212,500$416,700$444,550
MFJ,
QSS
$18,650$75,900$153,100$233,350$416,700$470,700
MP
221.671.2211.1251
2016
Single$9,275$37,650$91,150$190,150$413,350 $415,050Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH$13,250$50,400$130,150$210,800$413,350$441,000
MFJ,
QSS
$18,550$75,300$151,900$231,450$413,350$466,950
MP221.671.2211.1251
2015
Single$9,225$37,450$90,750$189,300$411,500$413,200Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH$13,150$50,200$129,600$209,850$411,500$439,000
MFJ,
QSS
$18,450$74,900$151,200$230,450$411,500$464,850
MP221.671.2211.1251
2014
Single$9,075$36,900$89,350$186,350$405,100$406,750Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH$12,950$49,400$127,550$206,600$405,100$432,200
MFJ,
QSS
$18,150$73,800$148,850$226,850$405,100$457,600
MP
221.671.2211.1251
  • Source: IRS.gov
  • Note: Married Filing Separately = 1/2 of Joint Rate

Note that the tax bracket for Married Filing Separately is always 1/2 of the MFJ bracket. For the 10% and 15% brackets, there is no marriage penalty, since the Married Filing Separately bracket is the same as the single bracket and MFJ is twice that amount. However, at higher brackets, there is a marriage penalty because the higher brackets start at lower income levels for married people than what would be implied by the corresponding Single bracket. In fact, the 33% and 35% tax brackets start at the same income levels for both Single and MFJ statuses. The new 39.6% percent bracket also has a substantial marriage penalty, but it is a little better than a complete penalty. The irony here is that a couple in the 33% bracket suffers a higher penalty than a couple in the 35% bracket.

Tax Brackets Will Now Depend on the Chained-CPI

When prices go up, consumers search for cheaper, substitutable goods. The Consumer Price Index (CPI), which is often used as a measure of inflation, does not account for the substitution effect until several years later. This leads to a higher rate of inflation than what is actually experienced by most families. Consequently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) developed a new measure of inflation called the Chained-CPI, which accounts for substitutions much more quickly, resulting in a lower percentage increase of inflation than measured by the CPI. This is illustrated by the following average inflation rates for December 2001 to December 2013 (Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics):

To reduce the increase in deficits incurred by the new Republican tax policy passed at the end of 2017, this new policy, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, links increases in the tax brackets to the Chained-CPI rather than the CPI that the previous tax code relied upon. This will cause tax brackets to increase slower than incomes, causing taxes to creep higher relative to income over the following years.

As a tax package to benefit the wealthy, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act also lowers the maximum tax rate to 37% and raises the threshold for that tax rate to $500,000 for singles and $600,000 for couples.

Amended Tax Returns

If an already filed tax return has an error, then an amended return can be filed, on Form 1040X, Amended U.S. Individual Income Tax Return, which is used whether the original return was filed on Form 1040, 1040A, 1040EZ, 1040NR, or 1040NR-EZ. The filing deadline is the later of 3 years after the tax return was filed or within 2 years after the date the taxes were paid. There is no electronic filing option, only a paper filing, and a separate Form 1040X must be filed for different tax years. Additionally, documentation should be provided to explain the reason for the amendment and also any additional documents that would normally be required. Amended returns tend to be scrutinized more closely, which may result in a higher audit risk. Therefore, if the error is not serious, then it may be better to not file an amended return. If there is simply a math error, then the IRS will probably detect it, and either bill you for a shortfall or refund an overpayment.

Historical Tax Information

Filing Requirement Income Thresholds
Filing Status Age at Year-End Income
2013 2012 2011
Single< 65$10,000$9,750$9,500
≥ 65$11,500$11,200$10,950
Head of
household
< 65$12,850$12,500$12,200
≥ 65$14,350$13,950$13,650
Married
filing jointly
Both spouses < 65$20,000$19,500$19,000
One spouse ≥ 65$21,200$20,650$20,150
Both spouses ≥ 65$22,400$21,800$21,300
Married
filing separately
any age$3,900$3,800$3,700
Qualifying widow(er)
with dependent child
< 65$16,100$15,700$15,300
≥ 65$17,300$16,850$16,450
Upper Limits for Taxable Income Brackets
Tax Brackets 10% 15% 25% 28% 33% 35% 39.6%
2013
Single$8,925$36,250$87,850$183,250$398,350$400,000Excess
Amount
over
35%
Bracket
HOH$12,750$48,600$125,450$203,150$398,350$425,000
MFJ
QSS
$17,850$72,500$146,400$223,050$398,350$450,000
MP
221.671.2211.1251
2012
Single$8,700$35,350$85,650$178,650$388,350Excess
Amount
over
33%
Bracket
HOH$12,400$47,350$122,300$198,050$388,350
MFJ
QSS
$17,400$70,700$142,700$217,450$388,350
MP221.671.2211
2011
Single$8,500$34,500$83,600$174,400$379,150Excess
Amount
over
33%
Bracket
HOH$12,150$46,250$119,400$193,350$379,150
Married Filing Separately$8,500$34,500$69,675$106,150$189,575
MFJ,
QSS
$17,000$69,000$139,350$212,300$379,150
Marriage Penalty:
Tax Bracket as a
Multiple of the
Single Bracket
No penalty: 21.671.2211
  • Source: IRS.gov
  • Note: Married Filing Separately = 1/2 of Joint Rate