It's just about time for another tax season, and most taxpayers aren't looking forward to having to prepare their tax returns for the just-ended 2018 tax year. Even though many expect that new tax laws could boost their refund checks, they'll also make things more complicated in getting your returns completed.

For most people, not filing a return risks heavy penalties. But some people can legally choose not to file a tax return. Even if you qualify to skip tax season this year, though, you might still want to file in order to receive some valuable tax breaks -- and cold hard cash -- that you'd otherwise not be able to get.

Stone-brick wall with plaque reading "Internal Revenue Service."

Image source: Getty Images.

If your income is below these limits, you probably don't have to file

Each year, the IRS gives guidelines for how much income you can earn without having to file a tax return. The chart below applies to most taxpayers, showing the various amounts you can make depending on your filing status and age.

Filing Status


Income Limit for Filing 2018 Tax Return (Change From 2017)


Under 65

$12,000 (up $1,600)


65 or older

$13,600 (up $1,650)

Married Filing Jointly

Under 65 (both spouses)

$24,000 (up $3,200)


65 or older (one spouse)

$25,300 (up $3,250)


65 or older (both spouses)

$26,600 (up $3,300)

Married Filing Separately

All ages

$5 (down $4,045)

Head of Household

Under 65

$18,000 (up $4,600)


65 or older

$19,600 (up $4,650)

Qualifying Widower

Under 65

$24,000 (up $7,250)


65 or older

$25,300 (up $7,300)

Data source: IRS.

You'll see that these numbers generally match up with the standard deduction for those in the categories listed. The changes are due to the fact that standard deduction amounts went up, but personal exemptions were eliminated. The net effect of those changes was to increase the numbers for all but those who are married filing separately. As a consequence, more people than ever will be able to avoid filing tax returns if they choose.

But there are exceptions that still require you to file

The IRS is quick to point out that some taxpayers have to file even if their income is less than the numbers above. These cases include the following:

  • You owe special taxes like alternative minimum tax, household employment tax, or Social Security and Medicare tax on unreported tip income.
  • You took distributions from a health savings account or medical savings account.
  • You had $400 or more in earnings from self-employment or wages of $108.28 or more from a church or qualified church-controlled organization exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes.
  • Advance payments of the premium or health coverage tax credit were made for you or a family member covered on the tax return.
  • You owe tax on repatriated foreign assets.

In addition, if you're considered someone else's dependent and had unearned nonjob income from sources like investments, you might have to file even if your income is lower than that shown in the chart. Single dependents have to file if their unearned income exceeds $1,050 for those under 65, although you can have another $1,600 if you're 65 or older and an extra $1,600 if you're also blind. For those with a mix of earned and unearned income, if your income is above the sum of your earned income plus $350 plus any of the extra $1,600 amounts that apply, then you'll also have to file.

Married dependents also have to file if their earned income exceeds $12,000 or if their unearned income is more than $1,050 for those 65 or under. The same general rules apply for those 65 or older or blind, except that the add-on amounts are $1,300 rather than $1,600.

Sometimes you should file anyway

Even if you don't have to file, you should if doing so will get you some extra money. The most common situation involves those who've had taxes withheld from their paychecks, because you can't get a refund to get that money back if you don't file.

In addition, some tax credits give you the chance to get refunds even if you don't have tax liability. Among them are the earned income credit, the additional child tax credit, and the American Opportunity educational credit. With thousands of dollars at stake, it's worth it to go to the trouble of filing to get that money back.

Finally, if you have any concerns about a tax audit, filing is smart. Doing so causes a three-year time period to start on the due date of your return, and after that three years goes by, the IRS can only review your return in cases involving major errors or fraud.

Do what you have to

Nobody likes doing their taxes, and sometimes, there's no reason you have to. But even if the guidelines above apply to you, make sure you're not giving up the chance to get a tax refund simply by not taking the time to prepare and file a return.