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Do I Have to File Taxes and How Much Do I Need to Make?



The title of the movie “Dazed and Confused” could easily describe how many people feel come tax time. Others would add “intimidated,” “frustrated,” and “overwhelmed.” Hoping to avoid all this psychic trauma, the most frequent question people ask is, “Do I need to file a tax return?”

As with everything related to the IRS, there are rules about that. Three factors determine whether you need to file: age, income, and filing status. Even if you do not have to file based on the previous three criteria, you do have to file if you received the Advanced Premium Tax Credit to help pay for health coverage if you got your insurance through the Marketplace. Check out our Complete Tax Filing Guide for more help.

Note: In the tables below, if you earned less than the designated amounts, you are not required to file.

Tax Income Filing Limits

These are the filing thresholds for the 2016 tax year for people who are not a dependent on someone else’s return:

Filing StatusAge as of 12/31/16Minimum Income Requirement
SingleUnder 65$10,350
65 or older$11,900
Head of HouseholdUnder 65$13,350
65 or older$14,900
Married Filing JointlyBoth spouses under 65$20,700
One spouse 65 or older$21,950
Both spouses 65 or older$23,200
Married Filing SeparatelyAny age$4,050
Qualifying Widow(er) with Dependent Child(ren)Under 65$16,650
65 or older$17,900

A note about turning 65: The IRS considers you 65 for 2016 if you turned 65 on January 1, 2017.

As you can see, the first determining factor is filing status. The income requirements differ considerably depending upon whether you file single, head of household, married filing joint vs. separately, or as a qualifying widow or widower with a qualifying child.

Age 65 is a key factor because taxpayers age 65 or older receive an additional amount added to their standard deduction, which increases their minimum income requirement (column 3, above). For 2016, the addition is $1,550 for an unmarried taxpayer, and $1,250 for a married taxpayer or qualifying widow(er). For example, a person aged 55, filing as head of household, must file a return in 2016 when income is above $13,350. But, someone aged 66 with the same filing status does not need to file unless income is greater than $14,900.

Age 65 is a factor for all filing statuses except Married Filing Separately. With that filing status, you must file in 2016 if your income is greater than your personal exemption of $4,050.

Blindness is also a factor to be considered. As with age, if the taxpayer or spouse is blind (vision is 20/200 with glasses/contacts or worse in the better eye, or field of vision is 20% or less), the taxpayer receives an additional $1,550 added to their standard deduction if unmarried, or $1,250 if married or a qualified widow(er).

Do Dependents Need to File?

The IRS has separate rules for dependents, which are contingent upon the same factors of marital status, age, income and blindness. In this case, the kind of income is also relevant, whether earned or unearned.

Marital statusAge and blindnessMust file if any of the following apply:
SingleUnder 65 and not blindUnearned income more than $1,050, or
Earned income more than $6,300, or
Gross income was more than the larger of $1,050 or
your earned income (up to $5,950) plus $350.
Single65 or older or blindUnearned income more than $2,600
($4,150 if 65 or older and blind), or
Earned income more than $7,850
($9,400 if 65 or older and blind), or
Gross income was more than the larger of:
$2,600 ($4,150 is 65 or older and blind), or
Your earned income (up to $5,950) plus $1,900
($3,450 if 65 or older and blind).
MarriedUnder 65 and not blindYour gross income was at least $5 and your spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions
Your unearned income was more than $1,050
Your earned income was more than $6,300
Your gross income was more than the larger of $1,050 or
Your earned income (up to $5,950) plus $350
Married65 or older or blindYour gross income was at least $5 and your spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions.
Your unearned income was more than $2,300
($3,550 if 65 or older and blind).
Your earned income was more than $7,550
($8,800 if 65 or older and blind).
Your gross income was more than the larger of:
$2,300 ($3,550 if 665 or older and blind), or
Your earned income (up to $5,950) plus $1,600
($2,850 if 65 or older and blind).

These rules seem complicated, with several variables, but may be summarized for the majority of situations.

If the dependent is under 65 and not blind, and receives only interest, dividends or other “unearned” income, he or she must file if the amount received is more than $1,050. The amount increases if the dependent is age 65 or older or blind to $2,600, but to $4,150 if 65 or older and blind.

If a dependent is under 65 and not blind, with only earned income, he or she must file if the amount received is over $6,300. If the dependent is 65 or older or blind, the taxpayer must file if the amount received is more than $7,850, but over $9,400 if he or she is 65 or older and blind. Some dependents may receive both earned and unearned income. If so, the requirement is determined by a calculation, as noted in the table above, and explained in Publication 929.

Should I File Taxes Anyway?

There are other situations in which you must file a tax return, besides those requirements noted in the tables above:

  • If you had net self-employment income of $400 or more
  • If you had wages of $108.28 or more from a church or qualified church-controlled organization that is exempt from employer social security and Medicare taxes
  • If you (or your spouse, if filing jointly) received HAS, Archer MSA, or Medicare Advantage MSA distributions
  • If you received advance payments of the Premium Tax Credit for yourself, your spouse or a dependent who enrolled in health coverage through the Marketplace (you should receive Form 1095-A)
  • You owe any special taxes, including any of the following:
    • Alternative minimum tax
    • Additional tax on a qualified plan, including an IRA or another tax-favored account
    • Social security and Medicare tax on tips you did not report to your employer, or on wages you received from an employer who did not withhold these taxes
    • First-time homebuyer’s credit repayment (1040, line 60b)
    • Write-in taxes, including uncollected social security, Medicare, or railroad retirement tax on tips you did report to your employer; or on group-term life insurance; and additional taxes on health savings accounts (see 1040 instructions for line 62).
    • Household employment taxes (1040, line 60a)
    • Recapture taxes (see 1040 instructions for lines 44, 60b and 62)

In some cases it might be in your best interest to file, even if you do not meet the requirements to file. For example:

If you had federal income tax withheld from your pay (reported in Box 2 of Form W-2), you might qualify to get some of it back as a refund.

If you qualify for any of a number of refundable credits (meaning that all or a portion can be refunded, even if you have no tax liability), you must file in order to receive these refunds. These refundable credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the additional child tax credit and the American Opportunity Credit.

If you are employed, the amount of federal income withholding tax is determined by the number of exemptions you claimed on the Form W-4 you filed with your employer’s Human Resources department when you first were hired.

If you consistently get a refund when you file your taxes each year because there was more withholding than taxes owed, you might want to file a new W-4 with your HR department to increase your exemptions and decrease your withholding each pay period. This gives you more spendable income each pay period, and means you are not giving an interest-free loan to the government for the year.

On the other hand, if you seem always to owe taxes when you file, you should consider filing a new W-4 to reduce the number of exemptions to increase your withholding, so you will owe less taxes when it comes time to file your tax return.

Final Word

Your tax situation is not static. It can change as you get a raise, change jobs, get married, or have a child. In the new circumstances, your filing requirement may change.

Depending on your new situation, you may not have to file at all – avoiding being “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” But keep those refundable credits in mind. If you are entitled to one or more, you will want to file a return. Check out our Complete Tax Filing Guide for more help.

What is your tax situation this year? Do you need to file?

Gary Tuttle
Gary's extensive professional background varies from small business owner to school administrator. Most recently, he has been involved in taxes, first as a certified preparer, and later as a tax software developer. He is currently licensed to practice before the IRS, volunteers as an instructor for AARP's Tax-Aide program, and has his own tax practice.

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