Taxpayers have several options for getting free help to prepare and send their income tax return during this year’s filing season, which began last week.
The Internal Revenue Service and the Free File Alliance, a coalition of tax software companies, make free tax preparation programs available online. This year, software is available from more than a dozen providers, including Jackson Hewitt, TaxSlayer and H&R Block.
In general, taxpayers whose income was less than $62,000 in 2015 can use the free online programs, which take users through their returns step by step.
Some companies, however, set different thresholds for using their free software. TurboTax, for instance, makes its free software available to those with adjusted gross income of $31,000 or less, while TaxAct sets its threshold at $50,000 or less. (Both programs are available to active-duty military personnel with income of up to $62,000.)
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In addition, some software has limits based on the filer’s age, or is available only to filers in specific states. Details are available on the IRS website.
Filers who made more than $62,000 last year can use the IRS’ “fillable forms,” electronic versions of paper tax forms that let filers prepare and send their returns online. The forms perform mathematical calculations, but provide limited tax guidance.
If you want help in person without paying a professional preparer, you may have some options. The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offers in-person help from trained volunteers, generally to those with incomes of $54,000 or less. You can search for a location by ZIP code.
In addition, AARP Foundation Tax-Aide offers free tax help in all states. This year, some 35,000 trained volunteers will work at 5,000 locations that open after Feb. 1. Tax-Aide volunteers can help prepare and file most returns, with some exceptions, like those involving rental income. The program is geared to older filers with low to moderate incomes, “but we don’t turn anyone away,” said Lynnette Lee-Villanueva, vice president of AARP Foundation Tax-Aide.
Here are some questions and answers about filing your taxes this year:
▪ Are there any fees for using the IRS Free File program?
Eligible filers won’t be charged anything to prepare and send their federal tax return electronically. (Make sure to obtain the software through the IRS website, rather than directly through the provider’s website, to avoid any potential charges.) Some programs do charge a fee for their state tax return programs, however, so make sure to check the details. Also, if you owe taxes, some payment options – like using a credit card – may result in a fee.
▪ Can I call the IRS to ask tax questions over the phone?
Yes, but be prepared to wait. The IRS has said that added funding for customer service should help reduce telephone waiting times from last year, when tight budgets resulted in service described by the National Taxpayer Advocate as “by far the worst in memory.”
This year, although there is more money for customer service, it’s still less than needed, said Anthony M. Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
▪ How can I use my refund to begin saving?
This year, you can use part or all of your refund to set up a myRA account, the new savings program established by the federal government. The accounts are intended for people who don’t have a retirement plan at work.
You can also use your refund to buy U.S. savings bonds. The refund purchase program is now the only way to buy paper savings bonds; otherwise, you must purchase electronic versions of the bonds.