How To File Your Taxes For Free, Get Help And Avoid Traps Trying To Get You To Pay
BY KRISTEN DOERER, JUSTIN ELLIOTT & KARIM DOUMAR / ProPublica
Originally published March 17, 2021 by ProPublica, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Most Americans are eligible for free tax-preparation services, but the truly free options can be hard to find. If you’re not careful, you could end up using a service that says it’s free but demands payment after you’ve spent time entering your information.
Now that the IRS has pushed the deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17, you have even more time to make sure you’re using the service that’s right for you.
How do you file online for free?
If you make less than$72,000 a year, you can find free tax filing options at the IRS Free File webpage.
Here are Free File options from TurboTax, TaxSlayer and others. (H&R Block has left the Free File program since last year.)
Each site has its own eligibility requirements, so be sure to find one that will be free for you.
It can take a bit of effort to find an option that fits your situation. Try using the IRS lookup tool to find the right one. Most of the options provide tax prep for both federal and state returns.
Best for: People who make less than the income cap and want a convenient and easy way to file online.
If you make more than $72,000 a year, you may have access to free options offered by several commercial tax prep companies, like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block or TaxAct.
But buyer beware: Some companies use a variety of tactics to try to wring money out of you, often only throwing up a paywall after you’ve gone through the trouble of inputting most of your information.
The widely advertised “free” options are typically only really free based on which tax forms you need to file. Which forms are free and which will trigger a demand for a fee depends on the company. So read the fine print before you decide.
- Here is the list of forms supported by H&R Block’s “free online” version.
- Here is the list of forms supported by TaxAct’s “free” offer. Click the tab labeled “forms.”
- Here is the list of forms supported by TurboTax “Free Edition.”
Credit Karma also offers a free tax filing service for “all supported forms,” but the company tries to monetize your personal tax data by using it to target you with advertising.
Best for: People who don’t qualify for Free File but have income only from a standard job and perhaps a bank account, and who want to file online.
If you’re in the military, you can use MilTax, a service provided by the Department of Defense that uses a version of H&R Block’s tax software. It is available for free to active-duty service members as well as those in the National Guard or the reserves, as well as their families. There are no income or tax form restrictions. There are also free, in-person options to get tax help if you are in the military or family — see the section below.
You can also get free advice from a professional who understands tax issues specific to the military. The phone number is 800-342-9647, or you can live chat with them.
Best for: People in the military, guard or reserves and their families.
How can I get personal tax help for free?
You can qualify for the IRS’Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program if you:
- Make less than around $57,000 a year, OR
- Live with a disability, OR
- Speak limited English.
You can qualify for the IRS’Tax Counseling for the Elderly program if you:
- Are at least 60 years old.
These programs match you with IRS-certified volunteers across the country who can help with free basic income tax preparation and electronic filing. You can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find someone to help you. Keep in mind that some locations may require an appointment.
Best for: People who are confused by the tax process and want someone to help walk them through the process.
If you’re in the military and want individual tax help, you can get freein-person tax help on many U.S. military bases worldwide. Military.com’s base guide is a good place to start.
Best for: People in the military and their families who want advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of military tax filing.
Why is TurboTax charging me?
If you make less than $39,000 a year (or $72,000 if you’re in the military) and TurboTax is telling you it costs money to file, you are probably using the wrong version of TurboTax. Don’t worry, there is a way to access the truly free version.
As ProPublica reported in 2019, TurboTax purposely hid its Free File product and directed taxpayers to a version where many had to pay, called the TurboTax Free Edition. If you clicked on this “FREE Guaranteed” option, you could input a lot of your information, only to be told toward the end of the process that you need to pay.
You can still accessTurboTax’s Free File version. This version is offered through the Free File agreement.
TurboTax’s misleading advertising and website design directed users to more expensive versions of the software, even if they qualified to file for free. After our stories published, some people demanded and got refunds. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, faces several investigations and lawsuits over this practice. The company has denied wrongdoing, and has moved to acquire other free tax-preparation companies like Credit Karma.
Following ProPublica’s reporting, the IRS announced an update to its agreement with the tax-preparation companies. Among other things, the update bars the companies from hiding their Free File offerings from Google search results. It also makes it so each company has to name their Free File service the same way, using the format: IRS Free File Program delivered by [COMPANY NAME].
What’s the difference between TurboTax’s “Free Guaranteed” and IRS Free File Delivered by TurboTax?
TurboTax Free Edition is not always free. It has only been free for tax returns that the company defines as “simple.” That often means people with student loans and freelance income actually have to pay to file. Look for Intuit’s “IRS Free File Program delivered by TurboTax.” This year, you are eligible if you:
- Make less than $39,000 a year, OR
- Make less than $72,000 a year and serve in the military.
What is Free File, and who is the Free File Alliance?
The Free File Alliance is actually a group of tax companies that — contrary to the name — is in the business of charging people to help them file their taxes. They spent a lot of money to make sure that the IRS didn’t develop its own free tax filing service that would compete with what they have to offer. As part of the new Free File Alliance deal, the IRS is now able to offer a competing service, but it’s not doing so this year.
The Free File Alliance companies have agreed to offer free tax filing for a certain percentage of the population based on income. Head to the IRS website to see which option is the best for you. These are the companies in the alliance:
- 1040NOW Corp.
- Free Tax Returns
- OnLine Taxes
About this guide:
ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we’ve covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematicallyundermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.