Not everyone is required to file an income tax return each year. Generally, if your total income for the year doesn't exceed certain thresholds, then you don't need to file a federal tax return. The amount of income that you can earn before you are required to file a tax return also depends on the type of income, your age and your filing status.
Consider your gross income thresholds
Most taxpayers are eligible to take the standard deduction. The standard tax deduction amounts that you're eligible for are primarily determined by your age and filing status. These amounts are set by the government before the tax filing season and generally increase for inflation each year.
The standard deduction, along with other available deductions, reduces your income to determine how much of your income is taxable. As long as you don't have a type of income that requires you to file a return for other reasons, like self-employment income, generally you don't need to file a return as long as your income is less than your standard deduction.
For example, in 2019, you don't need to file a tax return if you all the following are true:
Under age 65
Don't have any special circumstances that require you to file (like self-employment income)
Earn less than $12,200 (which is the 2019 standard deduction for a single taxpayer)
What if I only receive Social Security benefits?
In most cases, if you only receive Social Security benefits then you would not have any taxable income and therefore would not need to file a tax return.
One catch with Social Security benefits is if you are married but file a separate tax return from your spouse who you lived with during the year, then you will always have to include at least some of your Social Security benefits in your taxable income to see if it is greater than your standard deduction.
When Social Security benefits may be taxable
When determining whether you need to file a return and you receive Social Security benefits, you need to consider tax-exempt income because it can cause your benefits to be taxable even if you don't have any other taxable income.
Here's an example of where you may need to file, even with tax-exempt income:
You are under age 65 and receive $30,000 in Social Security benefits, but also receive another $31,000 in tax-exempt interest. $14,700 of your Social Security benefits will be considered taxable income.
This is greater than your standard deduction ($12,200 for a single taxpayer in 2019) and you would need to file a tax return.
To figure out if your Social Security benefits are taxable:
Add one-half of the Social Security income to all other income, including tax-exempt interest.
Then compare that amount to the base amount for your filing status.
If the total is more than the base amount, some of your benefits may be taxable.
Income thresholds for taxpayers 65 and older are higher
If you are at least 65 years old, you get an increase in your standard deduction. You also get an increased standard deduction if:
You are blind
Or your spouse is also at least 65
Or if your spouse is blind
The largest standard deduction would be for a married couple that are both blind and both over 65 years old.
Having a larger standard deduction can allow you to have more income than someone under age 65 and still not have to file a return.
When a dependent (child or adult) may need to file a tax return
Taxpayers who are claimed as a dependent on someone's tax return are subject to different IRS filing requirements, regardless of whether they are children or adults. A tax return is necessary when their earned income is more than their standard deduction.
The standard deduction for single dependents who are under age 65 and not blind is the greater of:
$1,100 in 2019
Or the sum of $350 + the person's earned income, up to the standard deduction for an unclaimed single taxpayer which is $12,200 in 2019.
A dependent's income can be "unearned" when it comes from sources such as dividends and interest. When a dependent's unearned income is greater than $1,100 in 2019, the dependent must file a tax return.
When you may want to submit a tax return to claim a tax refund
With all the above being said, there are years when you might not be required to file a tax return but may want to. If you have federal taxes withheld from your paycheck, the only way you can receive a tax refund when too much was withheld is if you file a tax return.
For example, if you are a single taxpayer who earns $2,500 during the year, with $300 withheld for federal tax, then you are entitled to a refund for the entire $300 since you earned less than the standard deduction.
The IRS doesn't automatically issue refunds without a tax return, so if you want to claim any tax refund due to you, then you should file one.