The Internal Revenue Service guidelines on who must file a federal income tax return center on income. If your gross income level reaches a certain threshold, you must file a tax return. However, the threshold is not the same for everyone. Factors such as age, filing status and the type of income that you earn affect the income level that triggers a required return.
Not all income counts in the calculation of what constitutes your gross income in a given year. The IRS is only interested in income that is not exempt from tax. Income is not limited to money. It also includes property, goods and services received as compensation. In addition, it includes any income that you received outside of the U.S. The income thresholds that the IRS uses are periodically adjusted as incomes rise.
Age and Filing Status
The IRS views your age and filing status in concert with each other to determine whether your income necessitates a federal return. For instance, if your filing status is "married filing jointly" and you are both younger than 65, then a joint income of at least $19,000 would require a return. Income thresholds for those younger than 65 are lower than for those 65 and older, except if you're using the filing status of "married filing separately" (in which case you must file a federal return if your gross income is at least $3,700).
Dependents and the Deceased
If you have children earning taxable income and you claim then as dependents, you should be aware that they may need to file a tax return for them. Dependents who make unearned income of more than $950 or earned income of more than $5,800 need to file a return. Also required to file a return are dependents whose gross income is more than the larger of either $950 or their earned income plus $300. If your spouse dies but he met the filing requirements for the year, then you are required to file a final tax return for him.
As strange as it may sound, you may want to file a federal tax return even if you are not legally required to submit one. The reason is that you will miss out on any tax refunds or credits that you are due if you don't file a return. For instance, you should file a return if you had federal income tax withheld from any pay that you received, even if the pay was minimal, because you may receive a refund for that withheld tax.
Tom Gresham is a freelance writer and public relations specialist who has been writing professionally since 1999. His articles have appeared in "The Washington Post," "Virginia Magazine," "Vermont Magazine," "Adirondack Life" and the "Southern Arts Journal," among other publications. He graduated from the University of Virginia.