If you haven't done your taxes yet, there's one important question to ask yourself before you file: Are you eligible for free tax prep? Millions of taxpayers are but don't take advantage.
It costs an average of $176 to have a professional prepare a federal Form 1040 and a state return if you're taking the standard deduction, according to the National Society of Accountants. If you're itemizing, the average is $246. The more complicated your return, the higher the price.
Depending on your income and other elements of your tax situation, you may be eligible for free help. Here are three resources to consider.
Low- and moderate-income taxpayers, those earning about $69,000 or less a year, can take advantage of Free File, a partnership between the IRS and the Free File Alliance, a nonprofit group of about a dozen tax-prep service providers. Free File is designed so that about 7 in 10 taxpayers, or roughly 100 million people, qualify. But in 2017, only about 3 million people used it.
"You can file in certain situations both your federal and your state [return], depending on if your state qualifies," explains April Walker, the American Institute of CPAs' lead manager for tax practice & ethics. "If you're at or below that [$69,000] number, then definitely it's a great option for you."
To get started, go to the IRS Free File site, where, after plugging in key information, you'll be redirected to a software provider's site to complete your return. "It'll tell you which of the offers are available to you," says Walker.
Keep in mind, however, that eligibility is often limited to those with straightforward returns, meaning they have W-2 income, limited investment income, and are claiming the standard deduction.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
IRS-certified volunteers provide tax assistance through two programs that operate out of community centers, senior centers, local libraries, schools, and elsewhere:
- Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) offers free tax help to those who generally make $56,000 or less, or those taxpayers with disabilities or whose English language skills are limited. You can find a VITA location near you by using the program's locator tool.
- Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) provides free tax assistance to people who are age 60 and older.
In addition to these IRS-affiliated programs, other organizations may provide free tax help in your area. AARP's Tax-Aide program, for example, offers free tax preparation help to anyone but caters specifically to those 50 and older.
Note that volunteer programs generally require you make an appointment, and you'll need to come prepared with your key tax forms. Try to make an appointment sooner rather than later, too. "If you wait until the last minute, you may not be able to get an appointment," says Walker. "It can also cause you to scramble for the information. Early prep is the best course of action."
If your income doesn't qualify you for Free File, you may still be eligible to use the free versions of common tax prep software like H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer. These companies provide free versions of their product to those with relatively straightforward returns, explains Walker — meaning that you have W-2 income, take the standard deduction, and have limited investment income.
Some of these tax preparation companies have been criticized for allegedly steering customers away from the free versions of their online tax preparation tools. It's worth it to do your research, compare products, and see if you qualify to take advantage of the free versions of online tax software.
"Before you buy the software, you can look and see if you qualify to use the software for no cost," says Walker.
Even if you're paying for tax prep, it's a good idea to compare estimates from different pros and services before you commit. And no matter what your income or tax situation, it helps to get filing out of the way early.
"People procrastinate things that are stressful," says Walker. "You can't say enough that early prep is a good idea."
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