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How to file your taxes for free

MoneyWatch: Last-minute tax tips
MoneyWatch: Last-minute tax tips ahead of April 18 deadline 03:08

Every year, Americans spend upwards of $11 billion on tax-preparation services. For most taxpayers, that's money down the drain. Even approaching this year's April 18 filing deadline, there are many options for completing your taxes for free, either on your own or with the help of an expert. 

IRS Free File

If you earn less than $73,000 a year, you can use what's known as "Free File" software, a service that commercial tax preparers make available in partnership with the IRS. This year, there are eight free tax products to choose from. It's a smaller selection than in earlier years, after two of the most popular software providers, TurboTax and H&R Block, cut ties with the free file program. 

Still, anyone earning less than $73,000 annually— about 70% of taxpayers — will be able to find at least one free software option. Some of these offer free state tax returns as well. 

To get started, access Free File through the IRS' website, which has the most up-to-date information about the available products and qualifying guidelines. Trying to get there though other means — including searching online for free tax filing — could shift you into a paid product. 

The IRS also offers a lookup tool, which asks about your income, age and residence in order to tell you what free software you qualify for.

Qualifications for each specific software can change year-to-year. For instance, FreeTaxUSA offers free filing for anyone making less than $41,000, while FileYourTaxes.com requires users to make between $9,500 and $73,000 and be aged under 65. (According to Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate from 2001 to 2019, the system was designed so that no single tax software could have a monopoly on free tax prep, but it had the effect of making free filing convoluted and more confusing for taxpayers.)

IRS backlog could delay your tax return 02:37

Cash App Taxes

If you make more than Free File restrictions allow and want to use tax software, another option is Cash App Taxes, formerly known as Credit Karma Tax.

The software offers completely free tax filing with no income restrictions, although it won't handle some complicated tax situations, such as when taxpayers file multiple state tax returns. But taxpayers should note that company collects the data you input in order to market financial products to you.

Users need to have the mobile Cash app to download the tax software, but not to file their return. 

MilTax for military families

Service members and families have the option of using MilTax, the tax service of Military OneSource. According to the IRS, MilTax "offers online software for eligible military members, veterans and their families to electronically file a federal return and up to three state returns for free." 

The software is tailored to military life, accounting for deployments, living in multiple states, and combat and training pay, according to its website. It's available online from Military OneSource.

4F: "Free File Fillable Forms"

Another free option available to anyone is Free File Fillable Forms. This tool is the electronic equivalent of filling out a paper tax return, offering the most common tax forms as PDFs that you can submit electronically.

Unlike tax software, which walks a user through a series of questions and then uses the answers to fill out a return, Fillable Forms will assume you know which of the various documents and forms you need and can do the math yourself.

"That's an option for people who are tax-savvy or have very simple returns, and can literally just plug in numbers," Olson told CBS MoneyWatch. 

If you use Fillable Forms, you'll need to create a new account every year because, for security reasons, the IRS purges information entered into the system at the end of every tax season.

MoneyWatch: IRS explores alternatives to controversial identity-checking system ID.me 04:04

In person: Volunteer income tax assistance (VITA)

Although the IRS encourages electronic tax filing, many taxpayers still prefer the personal touch. The government runs two volunteer-staffed programs to make this possible.

Taxpayers with annual income of less than $58,000 can get in-person help at a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) site. These neighborhood sites, often run in partnership with nonprofits or community groups, offer IRS-trained volunteers to help with tax filing during most of the tax season. 

"That's a great place to start if a person's a little overwhelmed, they want to hand it over to somebody and have them do it," said Phyllis Cavallone-Jurek, executive director of Ladder Up, a financial consulting nonprofit that assists low-income people. 

The IRS offers a lookup tool to find sites in your area. Each site is locally run, so read the details for your chosen site carefully. Take note of:

  • The dates that site is open — some close after the last week of tax season while others are open through the summer

  • The hours and days of the week it operates

  • Whether an appointment is required

  • Whether you can file taxes for multiple years

Whichever option you choose, note that VITA sites aren't for people with complex tax situations. For instance, most gig workers, such as Uber drivers, can use the VITA program, but someone who has income from a rental property can't, according to Cavallone-Jurek. 

The IRS offers guidelines on what kinds of tax help volunteers can offer, as well as what documents to bring. Taxpayers going in person should bring all their income documents and try to come earlier in the day, said Cavallone-Jurek.

"If you do find a site, if it's open from 10 to 4, be there early—don't walk in at 3," she said. "There's a lot of people and going earlier is recommended."

In person: Free tax help for seniors

People over age 60 can visit a Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) site. The program has no income limits, and its volunteers are trained to focus on tax issues that affect seniors, such as questions about retirement account withdrawals. 

Most TCE sites are run through the AARP's Tax Aide program and can be found on its website. Taxpayers can browse programs by type, including in-person, low-contact or fully virtual options. There's also an option for taxpayers to file their own returns using an onsite computer.

While both TCE and VITA are volunteer-run programs, the volunteers go through rigorous tax law training to  ensure they can handle a range of tax situations and maintain taxpayers' privacy, the IRS notes.

Many of the volunteers are students or retirees in accounting or tax law, Cavallone-Jurek said. And IRS ethics guidelines mean volunteers can't accept tips or hawk other services, making these sites truly free for taxpayers.  

"We can't really accept a lollipop or a dollar," she said.

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