Personal Finance

Free tax preparation does exist if you know where to look

How to get your taxes done for free

Benjamin Franklin once said nothing in life is certain except death and taxes. Only one is an out-of-pocket expense.

Americans can spend hundreds of dollars on help preparing and filing their taxes although there are plenty of ways to do it at no or little cost.

For starters, ambitious filers can always do it on their own by filling out the e-file forms the IRS — and in some cases, states — make available online. But there are also an increasing number of tax preparation software companies offering to help — for free.

Zachary Scott | Getty Images

Most recently, Credit Karma announced Credit Karma Tax, a do-it-yourself tax prep service at no cost. It covers a 1040 (the standard federal income tax form) and is best suited for simpler tax returns. (Those with multistate filings or a trust or farm subsidies would still be better off with an accountant who can offer advice as well as assistance, according to Credit Karma's founder and CEO, Kenneth Lin.)

Other services include TurboTax's Absolute Zero, which began three years ago for taxpayers filing federal 1040A or 1040EZ returns as well as state returns.

One hundred million people are eligible but it's not advertised, so nobody knows about it.
Tim Hugo
executive director of the Free File Alliance

The IRS also maintains Free File for more complicated returns (but still not multistate), which is administered through the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit organization comprised of a dozen tax prep service providers, including TurboTax, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt.

Free File projects that, in 2017, it will prepare about 3 million individual income tax returns out of the 153 million the IRS expects to receive. "One hundred million people are eligible but it's not advertised, so nobody knows about it," said Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance.

The program, which walks you through your tax filings step by step, is geared toward low- and moderate-income taxpayers, but each provider has its own restrictions on who qualifies. For example, some will accept all filers who make $64,000 or less while others may have age requirements or geographical restrictions (a wizard will walk you through the available programs that fit your criteria).

And you still may not be able to wrap up all your paperwork before April 18 (yes, the deadline is different in 2017) completely scot-free. There could be some additional charges, including a fee for those who owe taxes and use a credit card to make a payment or for filing a state return online.

For those determined not to spend a dime, and still want in-person assistance from a tax pro, the AARP Foundation runs a volunteer-based Tax-Aide program for those who can't afford tax prep help.

The IRS also has both a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, for people with disabilities, limited English or those who generally make $54,000 or less, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE, for those who are age 60 or older.

VITA and TCE sites are generally located in community centers, libraries and schools around the country. And many of the TCE sites are operated by AARP's Tax-Aide program.

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