For most people, the United States revenue collection system functions on an involuntary basis. Your employer deducts your estimated taxes from your paycheck - and frequently a little more - and forwards the money to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) each year. At the end of the year, you get a W-2 form detailing your earnings and the taxes withheld from your paycheck. You file each year to claim any deductions or credits, validate the IRS's information on you, and confirm that you earn no other income. If you do earn significant other income, you join the ranks of the self-employed. You file quarterly tax returns for yourself and contribute 15.3 percent of your income in Social Security taxes on top of your federal income tax.
Types of Income Tax Returns
Most individuals will file a Form 1040, 1040A or 1040EZ income tax return. If you plan to itemize deductions, you must use Form 1040. If you don't plan to itemize, but you have dependents, use Form 1040A. And if you don't itemize deductions and you have no dependents, use Form 1040EZ. Additionally, you may have to file one or more separate schedules and supplemental forms, such as Schedule C-Profit or Loss from Business, with your federal income tax return.
Requirements for Single Taxpayers
If your filing status is single and you are under age 65, you must file an individual income tax return if your gross income was greater than $9,750, as of 2012. If you are age 65 or older, you must file if your taxes are $11,200. If you were born before January 1, 1948, you are considered to be 65 or older for filing purposes. When calculating these amounts, do not include Social Security benefits unless you are married filing a separate return and you and your spouse lived together at least part of the year, if half of your Social Security benefits plus your other gross income and any interest you receive from municipal bonds is greater than $25,000.
Requirements for Heads of Household
If you qualify as a head of household and you are under age 65, you have to file an individual income tax return if your income was $12,500. If you are 65 or older and qualify as a head of household, you must file an individual return if your income exceeds $13,950.
Requirements for Married Taxpayers
If both you and your spouse are under age 65 and married and file a joint return, you have to file if your gross income is over $19,500. If one spouse is over $20,650. If both of you are over age 65 at the end of the tax year, you need to file an individual return if your income is $21,800 or more. If you are married and file separately, you must file if your income was over $3,800.
You must also file a return if you owe any alternative minimum tax, you owe taxes on a retirement plan such as an IRA, you had tip income you did not report to your employer, or you received income from an employer who did not withold taxes. You must also file if you had household employment expenses, though you may be able to file Schedule H without a return if this is the only reason you must file.
Requirements for the Self-Employed
You must file an individual tax return if you had net earnings (earnings after expenses) totaling at least $400. You have to file income tax on your income, and you must also pay self-employment taxes totaling 15.3 percent of your profit from your self-employment. This represents both your employee and employer share of your Social Security and Medicare taxes.
Requirements for Dependents
If someone else claims you as a dependent on their individual income tax return, you must file a return if your earned income was $5,950 or more or your unearned income was $950, or if the combination of the two was more than your income (up to $5,650) plus $300. If you are over 65 or blind and a dependent, you need to file if your unearned income was more than $2,100 (or $3,250) if you were older than 65 and blind), or if your earned income was greater than $7,100 (or $8,250 if you are over 65 or blind).
Jason Van Steenwyk has been writing professionally since 1998. A former staff reporter for "Mutual Funds Magazine," he has been published in "Wealth and Retirement Planner," "Annuity Selling Guide," "Registered Rep." "Bankrate.com" and "Senior Market Advisor." He holds a Bachelor of Arts in humanities from the University of Southern California.