When you start working for an employer, you must fill out a Form W-4 so your employer knows how much to withhold. At the end of the year, your employer reports the amounts taken out of your paycheck on your Form W-2 so you know how much to report on your taxes. But, in some cases, you can claim you're exempt from federal income tax withholding.
The IRS only allows you to claim that you're exempt from income tax withholding if you meet two conditions. First, you can't have owed any income taxes for the prior year. Second, you must expect not to owe any taxes for the current year. When the IRS says you don't owe any taxes, it doesn't just mean that you received a refund -- it means that your tax liability, before counting any withholding, was $0. For example, if you had $500 withheld and got a $200 refund, that doesn't mean you didn't owe anything, it just means you only owed $300, which was less than you had withheld.
When you submit a W-4 that shows you're exempt from withholding, your employer won't take out any money for federal income taxes from your paychecks. So, your take-home pay will be a little more than it would be if taxes were withheld. However, the exemption doesn't extend to payroll taxes -- Social Security or Medicare taxes -- so those will continue to be withheld. When you receive your W-2 at the end of the year, it will show $0 withheld for federal income taxes.
Claiming "exempt" on your withholding, even when you do it legally, doesn't mean you're exempt from owing any taxes for the year, just that you're exempt from withholding. If your financial circumstances change and you do earn enough to owe taxes, you're going to have to pay out of pocket because your employer hasn't withheld any money throughout the year. For example, say you were only working part-time, but your hard work paid off and you got a full-time gig and a raise halfway through the year -- you might owe taxes.
If you claim exempt on your W-4, it's only good for one year. If you're still eligible to claim exempt the following year, you need to fill out another W-4 and give it to your employer. According to IRS Publication 15, the claim of being "exempt" on the W-4 from the previous year expires on February 15, so if you haven't submitted a new one, your employer starts withholding money from your paychecks on February 16. If you later submit a new W-4 claiming you're still exempt, your employer will stop withholding additional amounts, but you'll have to file a tax return at the end of the year to get back any funds already withheld.
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