Who is required to file a federal tax return?

Filing requirements depend on two things- your filing status and your income for the year.

What are the filing statuses? This is one of the first questions that must be answered before starting an income tax return. There are 5 options.

  • Single – if you are unmarried on December 31, you are generally considered a single taxpayer, unless you have dependents that you support, in which case you can file as head of household.
  • Married- Joint – If you are married on December 31, (or if your spouse died during the year), you usually would claim married filing jointly status.
  • Head of Household- Single parents usually claim this more beneficial filing status. You must have a qualifying dependent that lived with you more than half of the year, and you must pay more than half of the cost of keeping up the home.  Married but separated parents can also claim this status in many cases.
  • Married- Separate. Married couples can elect to file separate tax returns under this status, whether living together or not. The complex rules usually produce better results for joint returns.
  • Qualified Widow(er)- this is the least common filing status and is reserved for parents who are single because their spouse died in one of the two years prior to the tax year.
  • Income tax filing requirements by filing status for 2021*
Filing Status Required to file if income over If over age 65
Single  $    12,550  $    14,250
Married-Joint  $    25,100  $    27,800 (Both spouses over 65)
Head of Household  $    18,800  $    20,500
Married-Separate  $    12,550  $    14,250
Qualified Widow  $    25,100  $    26,450


*There are also exceptions to the above thresholds.  Some people are required to file even if their incomes fall below those levels.  They include:

1- Self-employed and gig workers who had net earnings of at least $400 during the year.

2- Anyone who received health insurance premium credits through the Health Insurance Marketplace.

3- Parents who received advanced child tax credits during 2021 for dependents even if not claiming them.

4- Minors and other dependents who have taxable unearned income (investments, pensions, etc) of over $1,100. ($2750 for over 65)

  • Assorted other exceptions that are rare and not covered here.

Does Social Security count towards the filing threshold?

Social security payments only count towards taxes if they are deemed taxable, which also depends on your other taxable income such as pensions and investments. There is a formula that calculates this for the tax return.  For most low-income seniors, social security is not taxable.

I’m not required to file taxes, but should I do it anyway?

In many cases, yes, it’s a good idea to file because you could get a refund!  Possible refunds can be generated by:

  • Child tax credits
  • Earned Income Tax Credits
  • Return of tax withheld by employers
  • Missed economic stimulus payments for 2020 or 2021