Smart Tax Planning

Still haven't filed your tax return? Here's where to get it done for free

Key Points
  • The IRS Free File program may be available to about two-thirds of U.S. taxpayers because their 2019 income wasn't above $69,000 — the maximum amount allowed to use this option.
  • There are also some online tax-prep sites that let you file simple returns for free through each of their websites.
  • Although volunteer programs around the country typically offer free in-person guidance to taxpayers who need extra assistance, the option may be limited in some places due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It won't be long before that blissful reprieve from having to worry about filing taxes comes to a close — July 15 is Tax Day.

While the process may be a headache, it doesn't necessarily have to come with a cost, as well.

If you haven't yet filed your return, it's worth checking to see if you can prepare and file it for free. Between public and private programs, there are a number of options available. 

For about two-thirds of the nation's taxpayers — those with adjusted gross income of $69,000 or less in 2019 — the IRS Free File program may be appropriate. That's a partnership involving the agency and a consortium of 10 companies that includes H&R Block, Intuit (maker of TurboTax) and TaxSlayer.

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However, fewer than 2% of the eligible 105 million taxpayers have used it, according to a 2019 report from the National Taxpayer Advocate's office at the IRS.

That could change this year, because the companies that participate are now barred from hiding the free products on their websites — which in the past led some consumers to pay for tax preparation that they could have received at no charge.

Some of those online tax software providers will also allow you to complete simple federal returns (and sometimes state returns) for free through their websites. (Military members and veterans may also have access to free filing services.)

If you go it alone and end up baffled, remember that you might be able to find answers to your questions on the site of the service you use.

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And, of course, you can choose to pay for extra virtual help — some online tax-prep sites offer a package that gives you access to live assistance from a CPA if you need it. Those options can run more than $100, though, depending on the company and the complexity of your tax return.

About 50.5 million taxpayers turned to online tax prep software in 2017, according to the IRS.

If you need in-person help, the IRS' Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program offers free tax help around the country to people who generally make less than $56,000 and individuals with disabilities or whose English may be limited. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, some of the locations that offer services through this program are closed.

In addition, all locations within the IRS' Tax Counseling for the Elderly Program — which is geared toward older Americans and offers free tax help — are closed, with no information available on when they may reopen.

More from Smart Tax Planning:
Here's what being your own boss means for your taxes
Key tax issues for permanent remote workers
Five lessons for entrepreneurs, post-PPP

Although free in-person services through the AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program remain unavailable at most physical sites, some are beginning to reopen, according to a foundation spokesperson. Also, taxpayers in any state can access the program online. (Tax-Aide provides free tax-prep and filing services to all taxpayers, although many of its clients are age 60 or older.)

Of course, you also can pay someone to handle the whole thing for you.

If you go that route, carefully choose who completes your tax returns — because regardless of who does it, you are ultimately responsible for its contents. While a fraudulent tax preparer would be on the hook for illegal actions, you could owe back taxes, penalties and interest for filing an inaccurate return.

This year, the IRS expects to process more than 150 million individual returns. Through June 5, the agency had issued 91.4 million refunds averaging $2,769.