When Can I Claim Exempt on My W-4?

Tread carefully before claiming exempt on your W-4 form.

Your W-4 is filed with your employer. Based on a number of allowances and exemptions you claim, your employer will withhold a certain amount of your income from each paycheck to cover taxes owed to the IRS. If you claim EXEMPT on your W-4, it means that no taxes will be taken out of your paycheck throughout the year to cover what you may owe to the IRS. Claiming exempt does not apply to everyone. Let’s find out why.

Am I eligible to claim exempt on my W-4?

If you want to claim exempt on your W-4, both of the following need to be true:

  1. For the prior year, you had a right to a refund of all federal income tax withheld because you had no tax liability.
  2. For the current year, you expect a refund of all federal income tax withheld because you expect to have no tax liability.

If one or both of these are false, then you will not be eligible to claim exempt on your W-4.

Are there any exceptions?

In some cases, claiming exempt is just not an option. Below are some reasons why it may not be for you:

  • If your income is $950 or more and at least $300 of that is from un-work-related income (ie: interest or dividend income), then you cannot claim exempt from taxes.
  • If you plan to claim dependents on your tax return, then you cannot claim exempt from taxes.
  • If you will be itemizing your deductions on your tax return for the year, then you cannot claim exempt from taxes.
  • If you are Age 65+ or blind, you must use IRS Worksheet 1-3 or 1-4 to determine if you can claim exempt.

I’m EXEMPT for tax purposes. How do I report that?

After doing some research and realizing that you are, in fact, eligible to claim EXEMPT on your W-4, you’ll need to report that. On your W-4, leave box 5 blank. If you have an amount in Box 5, that takes precedence over Box 7.

Box 7 is where you will simply write the word “EXEMPT”. This will ensure that no withholdings are taken from your paychecks.

What if I claim exempt on my W-4 without being eligible?

You can say hello to a pretty hefty tax bill after filing your tax return along with possible penalties. You are essentially the one responsible for what you report on your W-4. If it is incorrect, the IRS won’t let that slide come time to file your taxes. You’ll be issued a tax due amount with further instructions on how much you owe and payment options.

You could be facing a $500 penalty fee if both of the following are apply to you:

  1. You make statements or claim withholding allowances on your W-4 that reduce the amount of tax withheld from your paychecks.
  2. You have no reasonable basis for those statements or allowances at the time that you complete your W-4.

Although penalties from the IRS seem intimidating and sometimes just down-right unfair, they shouldn’t scare you out of claiming something you are eligible for. If you make an honest mistake, you won’t be penalized. It happens. These penalties and strict guidelines are instated in order to keep some sort of order in an organization which is literally trying to cater to the entire nation.

Is there automatic exemption for students?

Although students are loved in the retail and food industries with free fountain sodas at Chipotle and a 15% discount at Kate Spade, the IRS (unfortunately) doesn’t offer the same. Students are advised by the IRS to follow the same guidelines as other taxpayers.

Not to worry, though, students! There is a bright side after all. You may not be automatically exempt from income taxes but you are exempt from FICA (aka social security and Medicare) as long as you are enrolled as at least a half-time student.

When in doubt, ask for help!

It’s easy to fall into the IRS trap filled with tax jargon and W-4 confusion. For many of us, taxes are a thought in our minds only once a year. That’s why we’re here to help you. If you have a tax question and need help preparing your tax return for the year, reach out to our tax experts here at Rapidtax via livechat, email or phone.

147 Replies to “When Can I Claim Exempt on My W-4?”

  1. I think I’ve been filing my w4 wrong each year. The exemptions confuse me I do not completely understand. I always file exempt how do I know if I’m wrong?

    1. Hi Diamond,

      You most likely only qualify as exempt if the two requirements listed above under “Am I eligible to claim exempt on my W-4?” are true. If you claim exempt on your W-4, and were NOT qualified to do so, then you would end up owing the IRS a fairly large bill after filing your return for the year. However, if you’re still unsure as to how to complete your W-4, then check out our other articles, “Do I Claim Zero, One, Two W-4 Allowances?” and “How to Fill Out a W-4 Correctly“. This has specific examples for you to relate your own situation to.

    1. Hi Jenny,

      The information you have provided cannot determine whether or not you are exempt from withholding. It will depend on your income for the year among other factors. You can see if you correspond to the qualifications listed in the above article or contact your tax preparer for more information.

  2. Hello,

    I am currently a full-time student, listed as a dependent*, and will be working part time. I was wondering if I qualify as exempt on the W-4?

    *I do not file taxes as I am dependent, my parents, however, do.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      You might be able to claim exempt on your W-4. However, it does also depend on the amount of income you are earning. I suggest taking a look at the IRS Exemption Tool HERE. This will ask you several questions about your tax situation to provide you with a specific answer to whether or not you can claim exempt.

  3. Hello, I will be receiving a very large overtime check in December. I do not claim any dependents or exemptions thru the year. Can I claim an exemption for the month of December only, or will it affect my entire year? I do itemize and claim my children at filing time.

    1. Hi Ray,

      You should not claim Exempt if you are not eligible to do so. That being said, you may want to consider updating your W-4 to claim more allowances. The more allowances you claim, the less is withheld from your paycheck. The less allowances you claim, the more is withheld from your paycheck. Overall, you’re still paying the IRS the same amount of tax. The W-4 just determines when you pay them; throughout the year, little by little out of your paychecks or in a lump sum after filing your tax return for the year. If too much is withheld from your paychecks, you will receive a refund. If too little is withheld (ie: you claim Exempt when you shouldn’t), you will have a tax bill with the IRS.

      1. Hi Al,

        The Personal Allowances Worksheet is solely for your own records. You do not necessarily need to follow it if you feel you know the correct amount to claim. You are only required to submit the bottom half of the W-4 form to your employer.

      2. Hello, I claim myself & 2 dependents through out the year & will file them on my W2. I’m going exempt for 2 months. Will I owe?

      3. If you are unsure of how to file your W-4 information, it’s best to follow the guidelines that are indicated on the form. From the situation that you have outlined, if you are also filing head of household, the number of allowances that you can claim would be around 3-4.

  4. I have an employee who is over 65 years old and wanted to know if he could “legally” be exempt from having “federal” income tax withheld from his pay. Thanks so much – Sabrina

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