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In this edition of the ProPublica Free Tax Guide, we talk about tax brackets, audits and who is most likely to get audited. It might not be who you would assume!

What is a tax bracket?

The federal government taxes people based on how much they make each year. Seven tax brackets — based on income ranges — determine how much you pay:

Federal Tax Brackets by Adjusted Income

The rate that a single, nonmarried filer will pay for federal income tax.

Tax rate Single (not married)
10% 0 to $9,700
12% $9,701 to $39,475
22% $39,476 to $84,200
24% $84,201 to $160,725
32% $160,726 to $204,100
35% $204,101 to $510,300
37% $510,301 and above

What are the filing categories for income tax brackets?

In addition to those brackets, there are four main categories, also known as “statuses,” that affect how you are taxed:

  1. Single filers — unmarried
  2. Married, filing jointly — couples filing together
  3. Married, filing separately
  4. Head of household — unmarried, live with a qualifying child

Together, the categories and brackets look like this:

Federal Tax Brackets by Adjusted Income

Income tax brackets for the different category of tax filers. NOTE: *Qualifying widows or widowers are their own category, with the same income brackets as those who are married and filing jointly.

Tax rate Single Married, filing jointly* Married, filing separately Head of household
10% 0 to $9,700 $0 to $19,400 $0 to $9,700 $0 to $13,850
12% $9,701 to $39,475 $19,401 to $78,950 $9,701 to $39,475 $13,851 to $52,850
22% $39,476 to $84,200 $78,951 to $168,400 $39,476 to $84,200 $52,851 to $84,200
24% $84,201 to $160,725 $168,401 to $321,450 $84,201 to $160,725 $84,201 to $160,700
32% $160,726 to $204,100 $321,451 to $408,200 $160,726 to $204,100 $160,701 to $204,100
35% $204,101 to $510,300 $408,201 to $612,350 $204,101 to $306,175 $204,101 to $510,300
37% $510,301 and above $612,351 and above $306,176 and above $510,301 and above

So, how do tax brackets work?

If you look at the table above, you might assume that you are simply taxed at one flat rate for all of your income. But it’s more complicated than that.

The U.S. has what’s called a progressive tax system. What that really means is the amount you get taxed progresses with the amount of money you make — even within the tax brackets outlined above.

Example: Let’s say as a single filer, you bring in a taxable income of $20,000. You would fall into the 12% tax bracket, but you wouldn’t simply be taxed 12%. Instead, you would get taxed at the lowest rate for the first $9,700 you make and at higher rates for the money you make above that.

In other words, you would be taxed in two different tax brackets: $0 to $9,700 and $9,701to $39,475. For the first $9,700 you make, you are only taxed 10%. The remaining $10,300 you make is taxed at the next tax bracket level of 12%. So you would owe $970 for the first bracket and $1,236 for the second bracket.