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Do I Need to File a Tax Return This Year?

By Maurie Backman – Feb 25, 2020 at 7:18AM

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Lower earners may be exempt from filing taxes -- but that doesn't mean they shouldn't do so.

You're required to pay taxes when you earn income. But if your income falls below a certain threshold, you may be exempt from the process of filing a tax return. Lower earners can often avoid filing taxes without penalty -- but if you don't submit a return, you could lose out on a key opportunity to actually get some money from the IRS.

Who needs to file a tax return?

If you're a moderate earner or higher, you can pretty much bank on having to file a tax return. But if your income falls below these thresholds, you may be exempt this year:

Age and Tax-Filing Status

Income Limit

Single tax filer under 65


Single tax filer 65 or older


Married filing jointly, both spouses under 65


Married filing jointly, one spouse 65 or older


Married filing jointly, both spouses 65 or older


Married filing separately, all ages


Head of household under 65


Head of household 65 or older


Qualifying widow(er) under 65


Qualifying widow(er) 65 or older


Data source: IRS.

The above numbers mostly align with the standard deduction for 2019. The standard deduction (like all deductions) exempts a portion of your earnings from taxes. Now, let's say you're married filing a joint return with an income of $23,000. Since that falls below the standard deduction, there's nothing for the IRS to tax you on, and so you're off the hook with regard to filing a return.

Tax Form 1040

Image source: Getty Images.

That said, above thresholds don't apply if you're self-employed. In that case, you have to file a tax return if your net earnings from self-employment total at least $400.

It could pay to file a return anyway

While you may technically be eligible to avoid filing a tax return this year, that doesn't mean you shouldn't make the effort. The reason? If your income is low enough, you may be entitled to valuable tax credits that actually pay you money, even if you don't owe the IRS anything.

For example, the Earned Income Tax Credit is a tax credit that's completely refundable, which means you'll get paid the full value you qualify for. That credit could be worth up to $6,557 for the 2019 tax year, depending on the number of qualifying children you have in your household, but if you don't file a tax return, you won't get to collect that money.

The same applies to the Child Tax Credit. It's worth up to $2,000 per child in your household under the age of 17, and $1,400 of it is refundable, so even if you're not required to file a tax return, doing so could put that money back in your pocket.

Make the effort

While filing a tax return may take a little time, doing so could leave you with quite a financial windfall. Best of all, if your earnings are such that you're not required to file taxes, it means you're eligible to submit your return for free (this option applies to anyone with an income of under $69,000). You have until April 15, 2020, to submit your 2019 return, so it pays to get moving on your taxes -- even if you're technically off the hook.

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