In the last-minute scramble over tax legislation, don't be fooled into thinking you need to pay through the nose for help filing your taxes this year.
For starters, the bulk of the GOP tax bill's changes won't go into effect until 2018. You won't really know for sure how much more you'll save (or owe) until you prepare next year's return in early 2019.
Although individuals can spend hundreds of dollars preparing and filing their 2017 taxes, there are still plenty of ways to do it at little or no cost.
Ambitious filers can always tackle tax prep on their own by filling out the e-file forms the IRS — and in some cases, state tax departments — make available online. But an increasing number of tax-preparation software companies also offer help — for free.
Last year, Credit Karma announced Credit Karma Tax, a free do-it-yourself tax prep service. It covers a 1040 (the standard federal income tax form) and is best suited for simpler returns.
Those with multistate filings, a trust or farm subsidies would be better off with an accountant who can offer advice as well as assistance, according to Credit Karma's founder and CEO, Kenneth Lin. Still, nearly a million Americans used the free filing service, Credit Karma said.
Another such service is H&R Block's More Zero, which was also introduced a year ago. More Zero offers free filing for federal 1040EZ, 1040A and 1040 with Schedule A returns, in addition to state returns.
A third offering, Absolute Zero from TurboTax, is in its fourth year. Like the others, it is geared toward taxpayers filing federal 1040A or 1040EZ returns, as well as state returns.
The IRS also maintains the Free File program for more complicated (but still not multistate) returns. It is administered through the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit organization of a dozen tax-prep service providers, including TurboTax, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt.
Free File estimates that over 50 million returns have been filed through the Free File program since it began in 2003 — saving filers about $1.5 billion in tax prep fees so far.
"One-hundred-million people are eligible, but it's not advertised, so nobody knows about it," said Tim Hugo, the alliance's executive director.
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 site tool will walk you through the available programs that fit your criteria.)
Even if you qualify, you still may not be able to wrap up all your paperwork before April 17 (yes, the deadline is different in 2018) completely scot-free. There could be some supplemental charges, including a fee for use a credit card to pay taxes owed, or for filing a state return online.
For those who can't afford help or are determined not to spend a dime yet still want in-person assistance from a tax pro, the AARP Foundation runs the volunteer-based Tax-Aide program.
The IRS also has a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program (VITA) for people with disabilities, limited English or those who generally make $54,000 or less, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) for those 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.
For more information, go to irs.gov.
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