Who is off the taxpaying hook?

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Do you have to file a tax return? Maybe not.

While the Internal Revenue Service gets around 140 million returns a year, millions of Americans are exempt from this annual duty.

Before you wish you were among that group, however, take a look at just who typically does not have to file a 1040.

47 percent and falling

During the 2012 presidential election, much attention was given to individuals who didn’t file or pay taxes. That was when Republican nominee Mitt Romney cited data — the now infamous 47 percent figure.

That number came from a study by the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution’s Tax Policy Center, or TPC, of 2009 IRS filing data.

The Washington, D.C.-based policy group has been analyzing U.S. tax filing and paying for years and actually is seeing a drop in those who don’t have to pay federal income taxes. For the 2013 tax year, TPC estimates that the number will be 43 percent.

Why the decrease? TPC analysts cite two key reasons, both related to the economy.

First, the recession meant a lot of individuals didn’t earn enough to file a return.

Second, to help those struggling in the recession, the president proposed and Congress agreed to stimulus measures that reduced their taxes.

With the expiration of the stimulus provisions and an improving economy, the TPC expects more people to join the income taxpaying ranks, estimating that by 2022 only 34 percent will be able to avoid paying taxes.

Off the income tax hook

Still, a third of the country free from income tax obligations is a substantial number.

It is, however, not necessarily a group to which most aspire.

Of today’s estimated 43 percent who don’t pay taxes, many of them end up with no tax bill for two main reasons.

In many cases, they receive tax benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and child-related tax breaks, that eliminate their tax obligations.

Or they don’t make enough money to require that they file. Remember, the IRS sets earnings thresholds based on age and filing status that determine who has to file. For 2013, the minimum income amounts that trigger federal filing are $10,000 for single individuals, $12,850 for heads of household and $20,000 for married couples filing a joint return.

And around two-thirds of this group, or 29 percent, work and pay payroll taxes, says the TPC. These are the Social Security and Medicare taxes that come out of workers’ paychecks and are matched by employers. This is 6.2 percent of earnings for Social Security and another 1.45 percent for Medicare.

Older, poorer

That leaves, according to TPC calculations, around 14 percent of Americans who pay no income or payroll taxes.

Of that group, around 10 percent are older than 65 and earn too little to pay taxes. The income earnings thresholds for this age group are slightly higher: $11,500 for singles; $14,350 for heads of household; and $21,200 for married joint filers where one spouse is that age.

Another 3 percent avoid income taxes because they basically are too poor. They earn less than $20,000 a year.

1 percent remainder

That leaves 1 percent of Americans who aren’t old or poor and still don’t owe Uncle Sam.

Among this group are investors whose earnings are from tax-exempt holdings such as municipal bonds or who have offset their United States income taxes, thanks to taxes they paid on foreign income.

Others in this fraction of nonpayers also might have zeroed out their tax bills because of substantial deductions, such as for large medical bills or generous gifts to charity.

Essentially, the Internal Revenue Code is pretty comprehensive. So while we all dream of not owing any taxes, chances are good that we’re going to pay the U.S. Treasury at least a little.

More tax info from Bankrate

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Veteran contributing editor Kay Bell is the author of the book “The Truth About Paying Fewer Taxes” and co-author of the e-book “Future Millionaires’ Guidebook.”