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Do You Need to File a Federal Tax Return? See If Your Income Qualifies

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Generally speaking, if you’ve made any money this year, you have to pay or have already paid federal income tax. But depending on how much income you brought in, you might not have to file a federal tax return.

In theory, filing a tax return is good for you, the taxpayer. It’s your way of telling the government how much you earned, determining whether you’ve paid your dues and figuring out if you’re owed any money back. You might even benefit from filing a tax return when you’re not required to, thanks to refundable tax credits.

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Here's who is required to file a tax return this year and why you might want to file even if you don't have to.

2022 federal tax return income requirements

Your income, age and filing status can affect whether you’re required to file a federal tax return. Older Americans, married couples and heads of household have higher income thresholds than single filers.

For each filing status, you must file a federal tax return if your gross income was over the following amounts. (For 2022 taxes, use your age as of the end of 2022.)

Single

  • Under 65: $12,950
  • 65 or older: $14,700

Married, filing jointly

  • Under 65 (both spouses): $25,900
  • 65 or older (one spouse): $27,300
  • 65 or older (both spouses): $28,700

Married, filing separately

  • Any age: $5

Head of household

  • Under 65: $19,400
  • 65 or older: $21,150

Qualifying surviving spouse

  • Under 65: $25,900
  • 65 or older: $27,300

2022 income requirements for dependents

If you’re a dependent, however, your income requirements may be slightly different. If you are able to be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer, you must file as a dependent — even if they’re not claiming you, the Internal Revenue Service says.

College students and other young adults may want to check with their parents or guardians to verify whether they’re being claimed. 

One key difference for dependents is that the source of the income matters. The IRS sets standards for unearned and earned income that can affect which dependents must file.

Unearned income includes taxable interest, capital gains distributions, unemployment benefits, pensions, annuities and more. Earned income refers to salaries, wages, tips, professional fees and taxable scholarships or grants. Gross income is the sum of both.

Dependents are required to file a tax return if they meet these income thresholds:

Single and either 65 or over or blind

  • Unearned income was more than $2,900 ($4,650 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Earned income was more than $14,700 ($16,450 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Gross income was more than the larger of: $2,900 ($4,650 if 65 or older and blind) or your earned income (up to $12,550) plus $2,150 ($3,900 if 65 or older and blind)

Single and under 65 and not blind

  • Unearned income was over $1,150
  • Earned income was over $12,950 
  • Gross income was more than the larger of: $1,150 or: your earned income (up to $12,550) plus $400.

Married and either 65 or over or blind

  • Unearned income was over $2,550 ($3,950 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Earned income was over $14,350 ($15,750 if 65 or older and blind)
  • Gross income was at least $5 and your spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions
  • Gross income was more than the larger of: $2,550 ($3,950 if 65 or older and blind) or your earned income (up to $12,550) plus $1,800 ($3,200 if 65 or older and blind).

Married and under 65 and not blind

  • Unearned income was over $1,150
  • Earned income  was over $12,950
  • Gross income was at least $5 and your spouse files a separate return and itemizes deductions
  • Gross income was more than the larger of: $1,150 or your earned income (up to $12,550) plus $400

Why you should file even if you’re not required

Tax experts, and even the IRS itself, recommends that taxpayers who aren’t required to file a return still consider filing. That’s because you might be owed a refund from your withholdings or through tax credits.

Tax credits reduce your tax liability, which means if you owe $1,000 in taxes and you receive a $500 tax credit, now you only owe $500. Some credits are fully or partially refundable, which means even if your tax liability is completely eliminated, you can still get a refund check for the excess.

These are some of the most common tax credits.

Earned income tax credit (EITC)

Aimed at helping low to moderate-income families, the earned income tax credit is a fully refundable credit worth up to nearly $7,000. The maximum credit you can receive depends on how many qualifying children you claim:

  • No qualifying children: $560
  • 1 qualifying child: $3,733
  • 2 qualifying children: $6,164
  • 3 or more qualifying children: $6,935 

The basic qualifications state that you must have worked and earned less than $59,187 in 2022. You can qualify without a child, but only if you’re between 25 and 65 and cannot be claimed as a qualifying child on someone else’s return. Note that only those who are permanently disabled may be claimed as a qualifying child over age 24.

Child tax credit (CTC)

Designed to give parents and caregivers a tax break, the child tax credit is nonrefundable, but taxpayers can apply for the additional child tax credit (ACTC) to earn a refundable credit worth up to $1,500. 

In 2022, the CTC is worth up to $2,000 per qualifying child for filers earning less than $200,000 annually or $400,000 for those filing jointly.

American opportunity tax credit (AOTC)

Families sending children to college should see if they qualify for the American opportunity tax credit. The partially refundable credit is worth up to $2,500 per eligible student. If the credit reduces your tax liability to zero, you can have 40% of the remaining credit (up to $1,000) refunded to you.

Filers with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) of $80,000 or less ($160,000 for married couples filing jointly) may claim the full credit, while those with MAGI between $80,000 and $90,000 (or $160,000 and $180,000 for married couples filing jointly) can receive a partial credit. You cannot claim the credit with a MAGI above $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).

The credit amount is 100% of the first $2,000 of qualifying educational expenses and 25% of the next $2,000. The student must be pursuing a degree or other credential and be enrolled at least half-time for at least one academic period beginning in the tax year, and you may only claim the AOTC for four tax years per student, among other requirements.

Lifetime learning credit (LLC)

Unlike the AOTC, the lifetime learning credit doesn't have a limit on the number of years you can claim it. However, it's smaller than the AOTC, with a maximum credit of $2,000, and isn't refundable. Another key difference is that the LLC applies per family, not per individual student.

Taxpayers may claim the credit to help pay for tuition and fees to attend undergraduate and graduate school, as well as courses or programs that don't grant certificates.

The LLC has the same income limits as the AOTC, phasing out for taxpayers whose MAGI is above $80,000 ($160,000 for joint filers) and unavailable for MAGIs above $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).

You can claim both the AOTC and the LLC, but not for the same student or qualifying expenses. Use the IRS' comparison table to figure out which is better for your situation.

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