Do I Have to File Taxes? What If I’m Unemployed, Retired, or Don’t Owe Anything?

by Lena

In a nutshell, you have to file taxes if your income exceeds a certain threshold each year.  The exact amount differs with age and type of income; filing status also plays a part.

How to Tell if You Must File a Tax Return

The instructions for Forms 1040, 1040-A, and 1040-EZ explain who must file tax returns in any given year.  IRS Publication 501 (which is revised each year) also covers the annual requirements.

Do You Have to File Taxes?  

Tax return filing requirements vary by person.  Whether you are single or married and with or without children makes a difference, as does the type of income you received during the year.  Here are answers to commonly asked questions regarding tax filing requirements:

  • Do you have to file taxes if you don’t work?  Maybe If you don’t work because you lost your job, you will likely have to file a return.  Unemployment is generally taxable (see the last bullet below).  If you don’t work because you are retired, then odds are you receive some sort of retirement income.  Some types of retirement income are taxable.  A competent tax advisor will be able to tell you for sure one way or another. If you simply do not work for compensation, have no other income streams, and have no other reason to file a return, such as to claim a specific tax break, then you likely do not have to file a tax return.
  • Do you have to file taxes if you don’t owe anything?  Maybe.  If you don’t owe anything because you don’t have any income to report, then the answer is likely no.  But if you don’t owe anything because you are due a refund, the answer is yes.  You must file a tax return in order to claim your refund.
  • Do you have to file taxes if you get Social Security?  Maybe. Some Social Security benefits can be excluded from taxable income depending on income.  You should receive a statement from the organization that issues your checks, such as the Social Security Benefit Statement, Form SSA-1099, to help guide you in this regard.
  • Do you have to file taxes if you make under a certain amount?  Maybe.  Those with extremely low incomes will not owe taxes, but many refundable tax benefits are available to this income group.  A refundable tax benefit is one that will be paid to you even if you owe no money to offset set it.  To claim such benefits, you must file a federal return.
  • Do you have to file taxes for unemployment?  Probably.  Unbeknownst to many Americans, unemployment compensation is subject to taxation except when specific relief if granted.  You should receive a Form 1099-G telling you what amount of unemployment compensation to report to the IRS.

Minimum Tax Filing Requirements for Individuals – IRS Income Tax Rules 

The reasons to file or not to file a tax return are too numerous to be covered in a single article.  While this article does not address all of the potential scenarios taxpayers may face, it does address some of the more common questions related to the requirement to file income tax returns with the IRS.

As you can see by all of the ‘maybe’ answers above, the requirement to file a tax return really depends on an individual’s specific circumstances.  If you’re really unsure about this, it’s best to consult a qualified tax advisor.

For more information, review the appropriate current year tax return instructions once they are available (new ones are typically published in December) and/or access the current version of Publication 501 from the IRS website (available in the Forms and Publications section).


Form 1040 Instructions

IRS Publication 501

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