You Can Probably File Your Taxes for Free. Really.
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We know taxes are important. The government needs revenue to do things it does for our society. We want to comply with the law and pay the taxes we owe. Plus, most of us want a refund if we are entitled to it. But having to pay to get that done, when our tax situation seems simple, can be frustrating. Luckily, there are excellent free options!
Some quick links if you want to go straight to one of the options above:
- IRS Free File website
- VITA information and VITA locator
- Free File Fillable Forms
- IRS2Go mobile app to check your refund status, make a payment, and find free tax prep assistance
File Your Taxes Using Free File
Some of us have been frustrated in the past when we see an advertisement for free tax filing. But then we go to do our taxes, and it turns out that we still end up paying. Here’s the solution. The IRS has a program called IRS Free File. The IRS partners with many tax preparation companies that you may recognize to offer their software for free. It can help you find an option for totally free tax filing software. You’ll be able to know before you get too far in if it will truly be free for your situation.
There is an income limitation. For the 2021 Filing Season (2020 tax returns) your income must be less than $72,000 for 2020 to qualify. This limit is based on your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). For most people, AGI is close to or the same as their Gross Income. Also, the more complicated your return, the less likely you’ll be able to get it done and filed completely for free. The IRS has a list of forms that the Free File partners offer for free. Partners only have to offer the most commonly used forms for free. One of the advantages of Free File is that once the 2021 Filing Season gets started, you can compare the different Free File partners offers through IRS.gov.
If you file state income taxes, check whether you will be able to file your state tax return for free through Free File. As we roll into the 2021 Filing Season, you’ll be able to check out Free File partners. A disclaimer: while Free File makes it easier to find a truly free option, there can still be cases where something comes up after you’ve chosen a software option. You may need to file a form that isn’t supported by the free option offered by the Free File partner. Unfortunately, this is normal due to our complicated tax code. If you haven’t filed your return yet, you aren’t obligated to pay. You can go back and choose another option or look for a free in-person option.
Get Help Filing Your Taxes with Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
The IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs offer free basic tax return preparation. But there are qualifications. Generally, VITA is for people earning $57,000 or less, but some locations may go higher. There is also VITA support for people with disabilities and for taxpayers with limited English. Most VITA programs are for older folks, for minorities, and for military service members. If you find one that focuses on a group that you aren’t part of, they may still be able to help you. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
Much like the IRS Free File program, there are typically limitations on the type of forms a VITA location will do for taxpayers. And some locations offer guided tax return assistance, meaning you will be doing the tax return with their help. So, if you want them to do it for you, check ahead of time to see what they offer. You can find a location using your preferred internet search engine, but I prefer the VITA locator tool. Check during tax season (usually January – April) if you can’t find a location close to you outside of tax season.
File Your Taxes the Old-School Way
You can go to IRS.gov, print out the forms, and read the instructions to do your tax returns by hand. The IRS prefers that taxpayers file tax returns electronically and many states encourage taxpayers to file their state taxes electronically. It will generally take you longer to prepare a tax return on paper. Plus, processing a paper tax return will almost always take longer.
Once the 2021 Filing Season is up and running in January, you can also get fillable forms online on the IRS website. Anyone can use these to file electronically. But with this electronic filing, you have to follow the publications and instructions on your own. It doesn’t include software to help with preparing tax returns.
So those are some free tax filing options. Maybe you can’t avoid taxes, but perhaps you can avoid paying to fulfill your tax obligation when your situation isn’t too complicated.
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Jerry Zeigler is a Navy veteran who serves service members with financial counseling and education. As an Accredited Financial Counselor®, he is a member of the Better Financial Counseling Network and is the owner of JZ Financial Management. As a tax professional and Enrolled Agent, he has a passion for helping taxpayers navigate taxes.