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Here's what a simple tax return is and how to qualify so you can file your taxes for free

Most online tax filing software lets you file tax returns for free, but you need to qualify for a simple tax return. Here's what that means.

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If you plan on filing your own taxes this year, you may qualify for a simple tax return. You can file a simple tax return for free using many of the best tax software. But if it’s the first time you’re filing taxes or you’ve previously hired an accountant, you may not know if you can file a simple return.

To help you figure out where your tax situation stands, CNBC Select looks at who qualifies for a simple tax return and where you can file your taxes for free.

What’s a simple tax return?

A simple tax return is the most basic type of tax return you can file. Each tax filing program defines simple tax returns differently, but they generally include:

  • W-2 income
  • Limited interest and dividend income
  • Standard deductions
  • Unemployment income

Many of the best tax software programs also include:

  • Earned income tax credit
  • Child tax credits
  • Student loan/education deductions

For example, H&R Block includes all of the situations mentioned above. Whereas TurboTax includes all except for student loan/education deductions. When you sign up for a tax service, it will take you step-by-step through the requirements needed to qualify for a simple tax return.

What if you don’t qualify for a simple tax return?

If your finances are a bit more complicated, you’ll need to file a complex tax return. Most tax software programs will charge you fees to file complex returns. Here are some scenarios where you won’t qualify for a simple tax return:

  • You’re self-employed or a freelancer (1099 tax forms)
  • You’re a small business owner
  • You earn rental income
  • You have earnings from investments, like bonds and stocks

When you're going through the tax filing process using a software program, you'll receive notice if you can’t file a free simple tax return and instead need to upgrade and pay for a more complex return.

Where to file a simple tax return for free

All five of CNBC Select’s best tax software programs offer users the opportunity to file a simple tax return for free. The only exception is TaxAct, which charges $19.95 per state return; filing a simple federal tax return is free.

Here are your options:

If you need to file a more complex tax return, all of the tax filing programs provide deluxe, premium and self-employed plans, except for Credit Karma Tax.

Our methodology

To determine which tax software offers the best way to file your taxes online, CNBC Select analyzed 12 programs. We compared each program on a range of features, including:

  • Cost
  • User experience
  • Expert tax assistance
  • Accuracy and maximum refund guarantee
  • Better Business Bureau (BBB) rating
  • Customer reviews, when available

Cost was one of the most important factors. While many of these services offer free versions, many people have complicated finances that require them to pay to file their taxes. We evaluated the price per plan and weighed the features you receive, like the ability to maximize deductions and credits. The more bang for your buck, the higher a service ranked.

Whether you’re new to filing taxes or a seasoned pro, user experience is crucial to filling out and submitting your return quickly and with little frustration. The services we chose had to be relatively user friendly.

The ability to speak with a tax expert or support representative was a big plus. Four out of five of the best tax software offered some form of support.

And if a service supported consumers with a generous accuracy and maximum refund guarantee, it was ranked higher.

We also considered the Better Business Bureau rating associated with the software. BBB ratings help determine whether a business is operating responsibly and if it helps to resolve customer complaints in a timely manner. Customer reviews were also taken into consideration.

After reviewing the above features, we sorted our recommendations by best for overall tax filing, runner-up, free tax software, most affordable and best accuracy guarantee.

The federal and state filing fees for the software programs mentioned above are subject to change without notice. Many programs don’t charge you until you file, so there’s a chance the fees can change from the time you start your return until you submit it.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.