Ellen Chang Forbes Advisor
There are many different ways to file your taxes for free, but these options are typically reserved for folks with under certain income thresholds or simpler tax returns. If you have more complicated taxes such as being self-employed, you’re unlikely to be able to file for free—most tax software companies will charge you to file certain forms.
If you meet certain requirements, you can file your taxes for free using online software programs, or receive direct help from tax professionals who volunteer through a program sponsored by the IRS.
“These free services are also beneficial to taxpayers in that they can offer significant cost savings. Many taxpayers with relatively simple returns often pay hundreds of dollars to file their taxes through national tax preparation companies,” says Nell Curtis, an accounting instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College in Wisconsin.
Here’s a look at the various options and which one may fit your financial situation the best.
1. Free Versions of Online Tax Software
Many of the big tax preparation companies will bring in customers with the offer of “free” filing, says Curtis. But beware the upsell.
Forbes Advisor reviewed six of the top online tax software platforms and our top free pick for simple tax returns is H&R Block where you can file your federal and state taxes for free. The service includes a variety of common forms, including student loan deduction, as part of their free package.
“However, the fine print usually indicates that the free portion is only for the filing of a basic federal tax return,” she says. “Often if the return requires any additional forms like a Schedule A or C, that costs extra. In many cases the federal return might be free, but a state return will have an additional cost.”
When you are choosing a free product, read the fine print. Most of these products come with limitations that may exclude your specific situation, including your income and the forms you need to file. Also consider the complexity of your taxes: If you think you’ll need professional help while filing, some tax software companies offer CPA assistance—but you’ll likely have to pay for it.
2. IRS Free File
The IRS partners with tax filing companies to provide free options (usually with income limitations). “The IRS Free File program connects taxpayers who qualify to vetted online tax preparation services and is an option that many people overlook,” Curtis says.
The IRS Free File program provides free tax filing from many major online tax software companies to Americans with an adjusted gross income of $72,000 or less in 2020, including TurboTax, TaxACT and TaxSlayer. If you earned more, you can use a different online program called the Free File Fillable Forms. If you need an automatic extension to file, you can do that online also.
The advantage of Free File is that the experience is similar or nearly the same as you would get using TurboTax’s advertised free filing product because the software programs were created by these large tax filing companies.
“Someone with relatively simple taxes who meets the requirements should seriously consider the Free File program,” Curtis adds.
To successfully use Free Fillable Forms, you’ll need to be familiar with using paper forms and be able to do basic tax calculations with a limited amount of guidance. It’s also for federal taxes only; you can’t file state taxes through this program.
The IRS has a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that has partnerships all over the U.S. offering free tax preparation for people who qualify. The VITA program offers free tax help for people who generally make $57,000 or less, people with disabilities and limited English-speaking taxpayers.
VITA volunteers must pass certification exams in order to participate. Every return must go through a quality review process before it is filed, Curtis says.
“This can be a good option for someone who isn’t comfortable doing their own taxes but still wants to take advantage of a free filing program,” Curtis adds, who is the site coordinator for Milwaukee Area Technical College’s VITA program.
The VITA program has undergone significant changes this year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Many sites that are usually open are closed, or aren’t operating at full capacity. Some VITA tax preparers are offering tax preparation virtually through a partnership with GetYourRefund.org. They also offer an in-person option with temperature checks and social distancing, drop-offs and drive-through drop-offs.
“I’m sure the number of open sites and volunteers are down this year, but there are definitely VITA sites operating in most larger cities and many smaller communities,” Curtis says.
You can prepare to file taxes through VITA by completing an intake form, which will ask you questions about your income, expenses and will request copies of all tax forms such as your W-2s and 1099 forms. Taxpayers also need to provide photo IDs and social security cards/taxpayer identification number (TIN) letters to prove their identities.