Taxes 2011 – 3 Tips for Free Help


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Virtually everyone in the United States is eligible for some sort of free tax preparation help, from free in-person preparation and electronic filing to filing free forms online. Here's how to find out what you qualify for.

Every year Americans spend millions of dollars paying professionals to do their tax returns when they could be getting the same help free.

Don’t be one of those Americans.

If you made less than $49,000 last year, you can have your taxes prepared and electronically filed by a trained volunteer for nothing. If you made up to $58,000, you can find free online preparation and electronic filing. And no matter how much you made, if you’re willing to fill in the forms online, you can also file electronically for free.

Watch the following 90-second news story I recently did at a volunteer income tax assistance site, then meet me on the other side for more…

Let’s recap those options and provide you some links:

Income less than $49,000 in 2010: free in-person help

Check with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance. There are thousands of VITA sites in places like churches, community centers, libraries, schools, malls, and military bases, as well as in some IRS offices: The office we visited to do the story above was located in a nearby county assistance office.

To find one near you, just go to a search engine and type “VITA sites” along with your city or state. In my state (Florida) there are 79 pages of VITA sites. So finding one isn’t tough. There are a few limitations, however, so check out this list of criteria for free preparation to make sure you qualify.

Over 60: free in-person help

If you’re over 60 with low to middle income, AARP also has thousands of places you can go for free preparation and filing. You do not have to belong to AARP. To find a site, just go to this AARP web page and put in your zip code.

Income less than $58,000: free online preparation and electronic filing

If you make too much for VITA and/or aren’t old enough for AARP, you can still have your taxes prepared and filed for free online. According to the IRS, 70 percent of American taxpayers – 98 million people – qualify. If you made $58,000 or less, head to this page on the IRS website. When you get there, you’ll be asked to provide some basic information, then you can select from any number of companies that participate in the program.

Most companies will charge you to prepare your state tax return, however, and prices are all over the place. Some charge $15 and some $40. So shop around.

Special note for those who made more than $58,000 last year: While the companies you find at the free preparation and filing site won’t file your taxes free, this list is a good place to comparison shop online preparation options. For example, I found several sites that claim to prepare and file your federal income taxes for less than 10 bucks. That’s a lot better deal than the heavily advertised tax software you find at retailers this time of year.

Any income: free filing with online forms

If all you need to do is fill in online forms – in other words, you don’t need any advice from either a person or an electronic preparation program – you can prepare and electronically file your taxes absolutely free. Here’s the IRS Free File Fillable Forms site. While no advice is available with this option, the forms will check your math. So if your situation hasn’t changed all that much from last year, you could just pull out last year’s return, input this year’s numbers, and be done. But be aware that there’s a slew of tax changes this year. Here’s a link to a recent story I did that lists them. Also note this option doesn’t offer state tax returns.

Any income: free assistance on the phone or in person

You can always get free help from the IRS by visiting an office or calling (800) 829-1040. And while it’s not the easiest reading in the world, you can also find a lot of answers by doing a search at irs.gov.

If you show, they won’t tell.

Some tax preparation services will happily pocket your money for doing your taxes even though they know you could easily get free in-person assistance elsewhere.  I’ve asked employees of our nation’s largest tax preparation services if they feel any guilt over charging people when they’re aware VITA would help them free.  Their response? Nope: It’s the responsibility of customers to explore their options.

Fine: Now you know your options. Don’t waste your money.

Stacy Johnson

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