How to File Taxes for Inmates

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If someone you love is serving time, that inmate is still responsible for filing taxes while in prison. Inmates typically don't earn income while they're locked up, but if they do, it's usually a fraction of the minimum wage. They can, however, receive income from other sources, such as wages they earned before entering the system and interest on bank accounts. Although most inmates won't earn enough income to be required to file taxes, if they are single filers earning more than $12,400 as of 2020, they have to file taxes. If that inmate is you, you can file taxes on your own or request assistance from prison officials.


  • If you are an inmate and don't have help from the outside, you can complete your taxes yourself or seek additional resources within the correctional facility. Most prisons offer some kind of tax assistance, such as access to an in-house legal or tax professional. Regardless of your current situation or challenges, you are required to pay taxes on all income you received during the year.

Help From Outside the Jail

Start by downloading Form 2848 from the Internal Revenue Service website. Form 2848 is the IRS power of attorney form, which gives you the right to go about signing a tax return for incarcerated spouse, for instance. Fill out the form and mail it to the inmate. Let the inmate know you need the form returned before April 15. If the inmate doesn't agree to give you power of attorney, you'll have to mail the forms and have the inmate sign the forms from behind bars.

Qualifying as a Dependent

Download Form 1040 or 1040-SR and the corresponding instructions from the IRS website. Evaluate the inmate's previous living situation to determine whether she qualifies as a dependent. If the inmate is new to the system and lived in your home or another taxpayer's home, she might qualify as a dependent. She is a dependent if she lived in your home or another taxpayer's home for more than six months during the year and you or another person provided more than half her support.

The inmate must also earn less than $12,400 as a single filer under 65 and not disabled, or receive less than $1,100 for 2020 in unearned income to qualify as a dependent.

Check the box that corresponds with the inmate's filing status. If you or someone claimed her as a dependent, she can't file a joint return with another taxpayer or use the head of household filing status. The inmate will most likely file using the single filing status. Fill out the form using the inmate's W-2 and 1099. An inmate can't claim the earned income credit unless she earned income before going to jail and there is no tax credit for incarceration.

Sign the inmate's name to the tax form and attach Form 2848, if applicable. Mail the tax forms to the IRS address listed on the form's instructions by April 15.

Completing Your Own Taxes From Inside

Download Form 1040 and the matching instructions from the IRS website. Evaluate your previous living situation to determine whether you qualify as a dependent on another person's tax return. If you just entered the system and you lived in another taxpayer's home, you might qualify as a dependent.

You are a dependent if you lived in another taxpayer's home for more than six months and received more than half your support from that person. If you meet these requirements and earned less than $12,400 or received less than $1,100 in unearned income, you probably qualify as someone's dependent. Contact the other taxpayer to find out whether he will claim you.

Check the box that is appropriate for your filing status. If you will be claimed as a dependent on someone else's return, you can't claim head of household or married filing jointly. You'll have to use the single filing status. Fill out the forms using your 1099s or W-2s. Unless you earned money before you went to jail, you can't claim the earned income credit.

Finishing Up

Sign your tax return and mail the forms, including a copy of your W-2 or 1099 to the IRS address listed on your tax form's instructions. To avoid late fees and penalties, you must mail your forms by April 15.


About the Author

Angela M. Wheeland specializes in topics related to taxation, technology, gaming and criminal law. She has contributed to several websites and serves as the lead content editor for a construction-related website. Wheeland holds an Associate of Arts in accounting and criminal justice. She has owned and operated her own income tax-preparation business since 2006.

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