It’s tax-filing season, and if you haven’t filed your income tax return yet, you will need to soon. Tax returns are due April 18 this year, though you can get an extension until Oct. 15.
You could pay someone hundreds of dollars to file your tax return, but don’t shell out for a tax preparer until you understand your options and make sure you’re making the right choice for you.
The first question to answer is whether you need a certified public account, enrolled agent or other tax preparer. Experts advise consulting an accountant at least periodically, even if you do your own tax returns, to make sure you’re sending the right information.
“At one point, everybody should get an accountant,” says Jeff Schnepper, a tax attorney in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and the author of “How to Pay Zero Taxes 2016: Your Guide to Every Tax Break the IRS Allows,” which is the 33rd edition of his book. “What you want from the accountant is, you want guidance, you want suggestions.”
You may still choose to prepare your own returns, but consulting with an accountant every few years helps you keep up with both changes in the tax law and changes in your life that affect your tax situation. Tax preparation software is only as good as the information you input. “It’s good for preparing your return,” Schnepper says. “It’s not good for planning your life.”
If you own a business or otherwise have a complicated tax situation – you have income from multiple sources, lost your home to foreclosure or frequently buy and sell stocks – you would be smart to consult an accountant throughout the year as well as at tax time.
“When you’re preparing, you really should be preparing toward the end of the year,” says Steven Goldburd, a partner at Goldburd McCone tax law firm in New York.
Free tax-filing options mostly are for people whose financial lives are less complicated. “If you’re not plain Jane, you want to have professional help,” Goldburd says. “If someone’s sick, you want to go to a doctor. You don’t want to go online to medicalpro.com.”
If you choose to use a tax professional, seek recommendations from friends and family, and ask questions about qualifications before you commit to someone.
Tax software is one way to do your own taxes with some online guidance, even if you are self-employed or itemize deductions. But many Americans can get help with their tax returns and file electronically without spending a penny.
The Free File Alliance, a coalition of 13 tax software companies, partners with the Internal Revenue Service to provide free tax-filing software options for individuals. It provides free access to versions of the same commercial programs people pay for, and taxpayers can use the service if their incomes go up to $62,000, though some participating companies set lower limits.
“It’s free, it’s simple and it’s fast,” says Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance. “It’s kind of a hidden gem.”
Those who make more than $62,000 can use free fillable forms, the online equivalent of paper forms, with features that do the math for you, though you have to know what information to fill in where.
You can also get free help preparing your return and filing from volunteers certified by the IRS who set up shop at libraries and community centers during tax season. In most cases, you’re better off dealing with the volunteer programs than walking into a storefront for help. Steer clear of refund anticipation loans, where a company offers to advance your income tax return, because they often come with high fees.
Here are five free – or nearly free – ways to get help filing your taxes:
Use paper forms and mail them in. You can download all the forms you need from the IRS website or order them via mail. You can then mail the completed forms back to the IRS.
Get free in-person help. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program offers free help with tax returns to taxpayers who make $54,000 a year or less, those who don’t speak English well or people with disabilities. The volunteers are certified by the IRS, and they can provide help with basic returns and file returns electronically. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly program specializes in issues common to taxpayers 60 or older, but in some communities they will help people of any age. The volunteers are provided through AARP’s Tax Aide program. You can usually find these volunteer programs at libraries and community centers or via the IRS locator tool.
Use free online software via the Free File Alliance. Taxpayers whose incomes are $62,000 or less are eligible to use the free online software, but not everyone qualifies to use all the options. Some programs provide free state returns, and others offer state returns for a fee. To get access to these programs, you must enter via the IRS website.
File online free with fillable forms. The Free File Alliance offers the online equivalent of paper forms (but these do the math for you) for those who make more than $62,000 a year and can do their own taxes. You can fill the forms out online and then file electronically.
Use free versions of commercial software for simple returns. TurboTax and TaxACT both offer a federal free edition for taxpayers with simple returns. Those programs include free state returns. United Way and H&R Block have partnered to offer free tax returns via a program called MyFreeTaxes, which offers free federal and state returns to filers who earn less than $62,000 a year, and Liberty Tax offers free federal filing via eSmart Tax to filers who earn $62,000 a year or less. State returns are $19.95.