Personal Finance

How to get your taxes done for free

Key Points
  • Even though there's a new tax law, there are still some tried-and-true 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 file your return at little or no cost.
How to get your taxes done for free

Even though the tax legislation has changed, you don't need to pay through the nose for help filing your return. In some cases, it's free.

In theory, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act — which roughly doubled the standard deduction, did away with personal exemptions and trimmed individual income tax rates — should make it easier for tax payers to prepare ahead of the April 15 deadline, and without any added expenses.

The average charge 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.

However, there are plenty of ways to do it at little or no cost at all.

Ambitious filers can always tackle tax prep on their own by filling out the e-file forms the Internal Revenue Service — and in some cases, state tax departments — make available online.

The IRS also maintains a Free File program. 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.

The program, which walks you through your tax filings step by step, is geared toward low- and moderate-income taxpayers, with an adjusted gross income of $66,000 or less.

Free File estimates that about 70 percent of taxpayers — roughly 100 million Americans — could qualify.

Last year, however, only about 3 million used this service, which is a missed opportunity for millions of others, according to Tim Hugo, the alliance executive director.

"It's really just a question of awareness," he said.

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For those who want in-person assistance from a tax pro, AARP Foundation runs the volunteer-based Tax-Aide program.

Although this service is geared toward older filers, there are no income or age restrictions to see one of AARP's trained volunteers, according to Lynnette Lee-Villanueva, national director.

The program is best suited for less complicated returns since some tax issues may be beyond the scope of AARP's training program, such rental income or couples who are married filing separately.

Still, only about 2.5 million filers go this route, Lee-Villanueva said.

Likewise, many more could benefit, she said. "They just don't know that it's available."

In addition, the IRS has a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program for people with disabilities, limited English or those who make roughly $56,000 or less, and Tax Counseling for the Elderly for those 60 or older, which is also administered through AARP.

VITA and TCE sites are generally located in community centers, libraries and schools around the country.

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