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How to get your taxes done for free

  • Don't overlook free tax-prep options.
  • Experts say many people who qualify for free filing programs aren't aware of their eligibility.
  • Here are a few ways to do it at little or no cost.

In the last-minute scramble to file your taxes, don't be fooled into thinking you need to pay through the nose for help.

Before you begin, keep this in mind: The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changes won't apply until you prepare your 2018 taxes. That means that the 2017 tax year is the last time you'll be filing under the old code as well as the last call for certain tax breaks.

The averge cost for a professional to prepare an itemized Form 1040 (the standard federal income tax form) with Schedule A and a state tax return is about $273, according to the National Society of Accountants. The price quickly escalates for more complicated returns with additional forms.

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 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 over 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 more than 50 million returns have been filed through the program since it began in 2003 — saving filers about $1.5 billion in tax prep fees.

"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.)

"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

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 to 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 for people with disabilities, limited English or those who generally make $54,000 or less, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly 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.

More from Personal Finance:
Here's what to do if you can't pay your taxes on time
Don't miss out on these disappearing tax breaks
Popular tax software may put consumers at risk