The Ultimate guide to filing your taxes for free

PHOTO: A woman holds tax forms in Boulder, Colo. on Jan. 14, 2017.PlayBrennan Linsley/AP Photo
WATCH Taxes: 5 things you need to know

If you bristle at the idea of having to pay to file your taxes, you’ll probably be happy to know that 70 percent of all taxpayers are eligible to prepare and file their federal tax return for free, according to the IRS.

In fact, a wide variety of free federal tax solutions can help qualifying taxpayers file their 2016 tax returns without paying a cent. In addition, there are many state tax filing options that are free or low-cost. Some of these solutions are offered by tax software providers in partnership with the IRS through the Free File Alliance, while others are a standard product offering. Many have strict eligibility requirements, but are perfectly suitable for straightforward tax returns. (Note: Most solutions with income restrictions have special eligibility requirements for active duty military members. If you were an active duty service member in 2016 and had an adjusted gross income, or AGI, of $64,000 or less, you may qualify even if you don’t meet the civilian income requirements listed here — make sure to check the provider’s website for details. Also, certain free file offers must be accessed from the IRS website.)

Paying taxes isn’t fun, but it’s something we all have to do. And not doing so can do more damage than you may think: unpaid taxes can result in a tax lien, which can damage your credit.

With that in mind, we’ve compiled what we consider the ultimate guide to filing your taxes for free — a list of almost 20 ways you could file your federal and/or state taxes at no cost. We include Free File Alliance solutions available through the IRS website and solutions offered independently. Want to find the right one for you? Check out each solution in detail below.

IRS Paper Forms The most basic option available is to fill out the IRS paper tax forms and file them by mail. (Note: While the forms and filing are free, this method does require you pay for postage.) You can find your appropriate tax return forms on the IRS website or at public locations like post offices and libraries.

“If your taxes are relatively straightforward, you can always print the appropriate documentation from the IRS website and send them back completed,” Jayson Mullin, founder of Top Tax Defenders, a tax debt relief service in Houston, said. “This can be great for single filers with one job and not a lot of itemized deductions.”

Remember, if you do your taxes on your own, you’ll be responsible for any mistakes and won’t get the benefit of software that hunts down tax credits and deductions on your behalf.

IRS Free File Fillable Forms If you’re comfortable completing your taxes yourself, but paper forms aren’t your thing, you can use Free File Fillable Forms, which are electronic versions. These forms are accessible from the IRS website and come with basic guidance. You’ll need your 2015 tax return, and this option will not include state tax preparation. There are no income restrictions.

TurboTax You can use TurboTax’s Federal Free Edition software to file your 1040 EZ and 1040A federal tax returns and state tax returns. State tax returns may cost extra. You can upload your W-2 as a file or just snap a photo, and the TurboTax software can automatically populate the right fields. You’ll answer TurboTax’s questions to work through your return and electronically file (e-file) when you’re done. TurboTax experts and other online contributors are available to answer questions 24/7. To qualify, you’ll need to have made less than $100,000, have no substantial medical bills and not claim any rental, investment or business income.

TurboTax Freedom Edition, available through the Free File Alliance, can e-file both federal and state tax returns for qualified taxpayers at no cost. Freedom Edition supports most federal and state tax forms. To qualify, you’ll need to have an AGI of $33,000 or less or be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). Anyone who meets these requirements will also qualify for free state filing.

H&R Block Free File With H&R Block’s Free File program, you can file both federal and state tax returns for free. Users can import their tax returns from any competing software, directly upload tax documents and prepare and file their returns using any device. Help is available through H&R Block’s online help center. To qualify, you must have an AGI of $64,000 or less and be between the ages of 17 and 50, or be eligible for the EITC.

Efile.com With efile.com, you can file your 1040EZ federal tax return for free. You can file single or jointly with your spouse. Both e-filing and print filing are supported, and efile.com provides free online support, including a team of “Taxperts.” State return filings are available, but do cost $19.95. There are several restrictions; for instance, you can’t claim dependents, have a mortgage or make over $100,000.

TaxAct TaxAct provides free filing of 1040EZ and 1040A federal returns and state returns. TaxAct has both an online and desktop version of its software, which uses a Q&A format to guide you through your return. There’s unlimited phone and email support for both tax and software-related questions. Once you’ve filed, you can track your refund status directly through TaxAct. Importing last year’s return will cost an extra $5.

There is also a free file version of TaxAct through the Free File Alliance that may support more complex returns, but has stricter requirements. You can qualify for this version if your AGI is $52,000 or less and you’re 56 or younger, or you are eligible for the EITC.

eSmart Tax ESmart Tax offers a free version for simple federal 1040EZ and Schedule B returns, plus free chat support. You can easily import your W-2 and last year’s tax return from competitors. You can also file amendments for free if you need to make a last-minute change. It even provides free audit assistance from Liberty Tax Service in the event of an audit. You can file with your state, but in most cases it will cost you at least $29.95.

Just like with TaxAct, eSmart offers a free file edition through the IRS website that provides cheaper state returns but has stricter requirements. To qualify, your AGI must be $64,000 or less and you must be between the ages of 18 and 54. Filing most state returns will cost you $19.95.

TaxSlayer TaxSlayer uses a step-by-step guided tax process to file free 1040EZ, 1040A and 1040 federal returns. You get W-2 and PDF imports and free email and phone support. While these filings are free, state returns will cost $19.99.

Again, you can use TaxSlayer’s free file version through the Free File Alliance that could support more complex returns but has stricter requirements. You can qualify for this version if your AGI is $63,000 or less and you’re 52 or younger. Qualifying Georgia state returns are also free.

1040.com 1040.com offers interview-style tax preparation, a free update from your prior year (if you used 1040.com last year) and an auto-completed state return. Simple 1040EZ federal tax returns are filed for free. To qualify, you’ll have to claim no dependents, have a taxable income less than $100,000 and fit other eligibility requirements. State returns will cost an additional $9.95.

There is a free file version of 1040.com accessible from the IRS website that might support more complicated returns, but it comes with stricter requirements. To qualify, your AGI must be $58,000 or less and you must be 52 or younger. State returns will cost you $14.95.

Even if you do end up having to pay a bit to file, 1040.com is a service you can feel good about. It donates $2 to clean water projects for every completed tax return, including free ones.

FileYourTaxes.com FileYourTaxes.com offers free federal returns with the Free File Alliance. Most basic tax return forms are free, but customer service is limited to Q&A web pages and email notices. FileYourTaxes.com does file free state returns for Iowa, Idaho, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Vermont. The free version is available to taxpayers with an AGI between $9,000 and $64,000 who are between the ages of 15 and 65.

1040Now.NET Available through the Free File Alliance, 1040NOW provides federal tax preparation and filing for taxpayers who make $64,000 or less each year. Your age and the state you live in can affect your ability to qualify. Residents of certain states qualify for free state filing.

FreeTaxUSA FreeTaxUSA’s software provides free federal returns and supports more advanced tax situations such as investments, small businesses, rental property income and itemized deductions. Free filers will get free customer support, but priority support, amended returns and audit assistance will require upgrading to the paid version. State returns will cost you an additional $12.95.

Just like many others we’ve mentioned, FreeTaxUSA.com also offers a free file version provided through the Free File Alliance. You can qualify for this version if your AGI is $51,000 or less and you’re between the ages of 17 and 60. State returns are free for residents in 22 qualifying states; all others will cost an additional $12.95.

Free1040TaxReturn.com A Free File Alliance solution, Free1040TaxReturn.com’s free offering provides federal filing and unlimited customer support. Federal extensions are also free. To qualify, you must be age 70 or younger, make less than $64,000, and live in any state other than Florida, Nevada, Tennessee, Texas or Washington. As of Jan. 31, free state returns will be available for Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Oregon and West Virginia.

OLT.com OLT.com offers free federal returns and provides free amended returns and free customer service via email. State returns, however, cost $9.95.

Using the free file offer available through the IRS website, you can also potentially file free federal and state returns. You can qualify with an AGI between $13,000 and $64,000.

ezTaxReturn.com ezTaxReturn provides free federal tax returns through the Free File Alliance for taxpayers who make $64,000 or less and live in one of 20 states. According to its site, the average taxpayer completes his or her return in 30 minutes, and ezTaxReturn promises a simple and straightforward experience. That said, the support offered after you file is limited — if you need audit or amendment support, you’ll have to pay for the privilege.

Jackson Hewitt Jackson Hewitt offers several tiers of tax software, including a free version for federal and state returns. There are no specific income requirements, but its free version will only support basic tax returns that include a W-2 income, interest income and all unemployment income. For returns that include student loan interest, self-employment, dependents and many other scenarios, you’d have to upgrade to a paid version. Jackson Hewitt will even complete free simple federal returns on location with a Jackson Hewitt tax professional, but this option requires that you receive your tax refund on an American Express Serve Card.

State Government Solutions As you’ve probably noticed by now, many free federal tax return solutions either don’t offer free state returns or limit the eligible states. However, many states provide free tax filing services for their residents. For instance, Maryland residents can receive free income tax assistance and even free electronic filing in person or over the phone. If you’ve found the perfect free federal tax tool but still need a free state solution, you may want to check on the resources available through your state’s government website.

Free Tax Assistance Programs For certain individuals with qualifying circumstances, federal and state programs can provide free tax assistance, including tax preparation and filing.

The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program provides basic income tax return services to qualified individuals with disabilities or limited English fluency who make $54,000 or less. With this program, IRS-certified volunteers can provide free basic federal tax return services, including tax preparation and e-filing.

The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) offers free tax help to all taxpayers, especially those 60 years of age and older.

“There are many sources of free help, with many organizations offering free tax preparation for non-English speakers, the elderly and taxpayers who make less than $54,000 per year,” Mullin said. “Check your local library and you’ll most likely find a list of these organizations and who qualifies for their free help.”

How to Choose the Right Tax Solution for You Choosing the right tax solution depends on your specific needs. Of course, the chief concern is that the solution supports your specific income and tax scenarios. Beyond that, you’ll need to make sure the features you require (W-2 upload, prior year tax return imports, etc.) are supported. You may also want to look for 100 percent accuracy guarantees with a pledge that any fees or costs associated with mistakes made by the tax solution will be covered by the solution provider.

Mark Jaeger, director of Tax Development at TaxAct, provided a few additional tips for evaluating online DIY tax products. • Find the total price to file: Many tax software providers list the price for a federal return only. It often costs more to file a state return, so it’s a good idea to calculate both to see what it will truly cost you to file your taxes. • Look for pricing protection: In many cases, tax filers begin a return and then decide to file later. According to Jaeger, many DIY tax providers “impose steep price increases throughout the filing season, forcing filers to pay more if they’ve started but not completed their tax return.” • Look for hidden fees: Common features like prior year tax imports are often hidden behind a paywall. • Save time with a W-2 import: Products that offer W-2 imports “can save time and improve accuracy since filers won’t have to do as much manual data entry,” Jaeger said. • Look for unlimited phone support: Phone support is sometimes excluded from free tax software products. • Consider the importance of in-product help: “It’s common for filers to have questions as they prepare their income tax return,” Jaeger said. “Look for thorough in-product help.”

Brian Acton is a freelance writer and contributor at Credit.com.

Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.

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