Tax experts estimate that about 76.4 million or 44.4% of Americans won't pay any federal income tax in 2018. How do you join this club? There are several ways.
One easy way to pay no income tax is to have little or no taxable income. About half of the Americans who pay no income tax do so because their incomes are too low. As a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect in 2018, single taxpayers receive a standard deduction of $12,000 and married taxpayers filing jointly receive a $24,000 standard deduction. Personal and dependent exemptions were eliminated. If your income is below these levels, you won't have to pay any income tax.
Lower income working families with dependent children can avoid paying income taxes because they are given special tax breaks: the child tax credit, the earned income tax credit, or the child and dependent care credit. For example, a family of four (husband, wife, and two children) with an income of $30,000 would receive $2,000 tax credits for each child and a $4,000 earned income tax credit. When combined with their $24,000 standard deduction, they end up with no income subject to income tax. Indeed, since the child tax credit and EITC are refundable, they get money back from the IRS.
Families such as these account for one-seventh of those who pay no taxes.
More than one-fifth of those who pay no income taxes are retirees with relatively modest incomes (although not living in poverty) who benefit from tax breaks for seniors. The most significant exemption among these is the tax exemption for most Social Security benefits.
Taxpayers with high incomes can avoid paying income taxes by having lots of itemized deductions. Unfortunately, as a result of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, itemized deductions are harder to come by than in the past. Starting in 2018, they only include deductions for:
As a result of these changes, only about 5% of taxpayers will be able to itemize in 2018 and later. Still, higher income taxpayers who make substantial charitable contributions and/or have large uninsured health expenses can still avoid paying income taxes.
Finally, it is quite easy to pay no income taxes if you're extremely rich. In our tax system money is only subject to the income tax when it is earned or when an asset is sold at a profit. You don't have to pay income taxes on the appreciation of assets like real estate or stocks until you sell them. Moreover, there is no tax on consumption or on borrowed money. Thus, the simple strategy of the super-rich is to buy assets like real estate and stocks and hold on to them, and to borrow against them when needed to finance their lifestyles. They don't have to pay any taxes at all on their borrowed income.
The rich also avoid paying taxes by earning substantial interest income from tax-free municipal bonds. They also sock money alway in individual retirement accounts where it grows tax-free.
There aren't that many rich people, so the number of super-wealthy taxpayers who actually take advantage of these strategies is quite small: The IRS reported that in 2011 there were 9,000 taxpayers with incomes over $1 million who paid no income taxes.