Most of us don't need to fork over hundreds for a tax professional to prepare our taxes. Check out these free alternatives.
The countdown to tax season has begun. If you need help preparing state and federal tax forms, now’s the time to get started.
This year, Tax Day is April 18. (April 15, the traditional date, is a Saturday, and the following Monday is Emancipation Day, a legal holiday in Washington, D.C., so the IRS has given us a few days more than usual to file returns.) The IRS starts accepting paper and electronic tax returns on Jan. 23.
Many Americans will pay someone to help them prepare and file a return. That’s no doubt a worthwhile expense for some. But free is better.
So, if you need help with your taxes — before you go out and throw down several hundred bucks — check out the these alternatives. Many national programs charge nothing to help taxpayers prepare and file their taxes. See if your tax situation and income meet qualifications for these seven free programs:
1. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance
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A free IRS-sponsored program, VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance), uses trained volunteers to help taxpayers complete basic state and federal tax returns.
Who’s eligible: Generally, taxpayers earning $54,000 a year or less, the elderly, those with disabilities and people with limited English-language abilities, according to the IRS.
- Use this online locator tool to learn when and where to find free VITA tax preparation help (and help from the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program) and whether you’ll need an appointment or can walk in. Or call 800-906-9887.
- “Self-prep” is an alternative. You prepare and file your own basic state and federal tax forms using web-based tax software and with help from an IRS-certified volunteer. Check online or by phone for locations offering a leg-up for self-preparation.
- Here is a list of what to take with you.
- Want to volunteer to help low- and moderate-income families with their taxes? The IRS will train you. Find out more at the IRS website.
2. Tax Counseling for the Elderly
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IRS-certified volunteers provide free tax preparation to older taxpayers through TCE (Tax Counseling for the Elderly). Many of the volunteers are retired people associated with nonprofit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.
The IRS says a majority of TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program.
Who’s eligible: The IRS says the program “offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those who are 60 years of age and older.” (AARP says it offers “individualized tax preparation for low-to moderate-income taxpayers — especially those 50 and older.”)
- Here is a list of what to take with you.
- Use this online locator tool to learn when and where to find free TCE tax preparation help and whether you’ll need an appointment or can walk in. Or call 800-906-9887.
- To locate the nearest AARP TCE Tax-Aide site, use AARP’s online locator. Or call 888-227-7669.
- Want to be an AARP volunteer tax preparer? Learn more and sign up.
- AARP has additional resources and information on federal taxes.
3. IRS Free File
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Free File is a partnership between the IRS and makers of commercial tax-preparation software participating in the IRS’ Free File program. Depending on your level of income, eligible taxpayers get free use of one of the following:
- Free File, a secure, free-of-charge brand-name tax preparation software that includes help with state returns.
- Free File fillable forms. State tax preparation is not included.
Who’s eligible: If your income is below $64,000, you qualify to use the Free File tax preparation software.
If your income is above that mark, you are limited to using the free, fillable, electronic versions of paper forms. These forms will do your tax math for you, but you only receive basic guidance.
It is important to note that rules vary among the tax software companies participating in Free File. And, as The Press Enterprise, a news organization serving inland Southern California, points out: “Be aware that those providers offer upsells for a fee including state income tax preparation and insurance.”
4. Tax preparation companies’ free services
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Several commercial tax-preparation companies offer free, basic online versions of their software. For instance, TaxAct offers free software that helps you fill out the simplest IRS 1040EZ and 1040A forms using IRS e-file options. TaxAct offers:
- Step-by-step Q&A that guides you through your return
- An accuracy check
- Free help with commonly asked questions
- Unlimited expert tax advice
The major benefit with any free tax service is in the money you save. However, these services have limitations, which vary by product. Generally:
- Some don’t offer free help with state returns. (TaxAct does, though.)
- Free products are for simple tax situations. Before using a free product, check the company’s website to compare the free product with costs and features of the company’s paid products.
- You could run into hidden fees. For example, you might be charged a convenience fee if you pay your tax bill using a credit card.
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Who’s eligible: Individuals or families with a combined household income of $64,000 or less are eligible for free help. Fees apply for filers whose incomes exceed that level.
- Go to the United Way’s MyFreeTaxes.com.
- Learn more by calling 855-698-9435 (855-MY-TX-HELP).
6. More free IRS resources
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You can get other kinds of free help from the IRS.
- Visit a local taxpayer assistance office — use this locator to find one near you.
- Phone the IRS for help: 800-829-1040.
- Search IRS.gov for tax forms and publications, or find answers using Frequently Asked Questions.
- See IRS information on preparing and filing tax returns.
- Find details on IRS electronic filing, or e-file.
- Here’s guidance on screening and selecting a tax professional.
7. Money Talks News tax hacks
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Money Talks News has lots of articles on tax topics. Search Money Talks News for “tax hacks.” Or if you’re having trouble with tax debt, visit the Money Talks News Solutions Center.
Do you think paying for tax preparation help is worth it? Share your thoughts in comments below or on our Facebook page.
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