While this year’s tax deadlines have been delayed for 90 days, returns will still need filing out eventually. Fortunately, at a time when cash flow is so iffy, there are a number of programs that can help you calculate or file your taxes for free.
Free tax help and filing programs fall into two groups: those that connect users to volunteers for in-person help, and those that offer do-it-yourself software for filing federal, and sometimes state, tax returns. Many of the in-person, volunteer-based tax-help programs are currently suspended because of corona-virus concerns, so we’re going to focus on free software-based tax–filing options. Keep in mind that “free” can come with catches—like software that upsells users into paid -options—so be sure to do your homework before picking the best option for you. Here are some options for free tax filing:
IRS Free File. The IRS works with Intuit, H&R Block and other tax-software makers to offer free online filing for people who earned $69,000 or less in 2019. However, eligibility standards vary, and not all offer free state filing. Don’t confuse these services with the companies’ branded tax-preparation options, which may not be free and are not bound by the IRS’ Free File rules.
Free File Fillable Forms. Taxpayers earning more than $69,000 who feel comfortable mostly going it alone can use the electronic version of the IRS’ paper forms at no cost. While these will do some automatic tax math, they offer only basic guidance. And you can’t use them to file state taxes.
MyFreeTaxes. A collaboration between United Way and H&R Block, this program provides free filing for taxpayers with simple tax situations. If you have just a W-2 and modest interest -income and take the standard deduction, for example, it could be a good option.
Credit Karma Tax. Credit Karma doesn’t charge a fee and promises to never upsell users—even those who have complex tax situations. That makes it a more attractive option for some small–business owners, freelancers, people with income from capital gains or rental property, and so on. But you should know that the company makes money by recommending financial products based on users’ tax data. Credit Karma says it doesn’t share users’ personal data with its marketing partners, but it’s worth considering any potential privacy trade-off before using the service.
Fewer people use free tax-filing -options than you’d think. Free File is available to 104 million taxpayers, yet only 2.5 million used the service last year, down from 5.1 million 15 years ago. Last month, the Treasury Department’s inspector general criticized Free File’s “complexity, confusion and lack of taxpayer awareness.” Part of the problem is that tax-prep companies have worked to keep Free File quiet to protect their business, some experts and advocates say. “The whole game now is for those companies to prevent taxpayers from getting onto the IRS Free File site,” says UC Davis professor Dennis Ventry. He suggests going directly to the IRS website (IRS.gov) instead of using Google to search for free tax help, which may point users to products that wind up not being truly free. He adds that if you’re not eligible for a particular Free File product, check the IRS’ other options before exploring a paid product.
Do your research and know what you’re signing up for. Will free help actually cover your needs? Are you comfortable with a broad, free service like Credit Karma if it means letting a company profit from your personal financial data? The work involved may seem like a hassle, but remember it’s likely to pay off for some time. “The first time you choose one of these options, it can seem a little intimidating,” says Mark Mazur, director of the nonpartisan Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “The trick is to get over that intimidation and realize that once you master an approach, it will be a lot simpler in subsequent years.” □
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