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By Shaina Mishkin
January 9, 2020
Lixia Guo / Money

Yes, you can file your 2019 federal taxes online for free — but it pays to be smart about it.

The IRS struck a deal with tax preparation software companies in 2002 to ensure middle class taxpayers can file for free, but the rules are wonky and complicated, which might be one reason for the program’s underuse.

About 70% of taxpayers qualify to use free tax prep software through the Free File Alliance, a joint effort between the IRS and several private tax preparation software companies, according to the IRS. But statistics show only about 2.7 million returns — out of about 134 million individual returns total — were filed using the IRS’s Free File program for fiscal year 2018, according to IRS data.

While popular tax preparation software companies, like Intuit and H&R Block, are members of the Free File Alliance, you can only qualify for the Free File program if you access their software from IRS.gov. Accessing the software any other way will bring you to the commercial version of the website, where you may have to pay to file your taxes, even if you would have qualified for the Free File program.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a majority of taxpayers are paying unnecessary fees to file their taxes — many households with relatively simple tax situations might be able to file for free using commercial software — but it does mean some could be leaving money on the table.

The only way to truly ensure you’re filing your federal return for free starts at IRS.gov. Here are the tools available to you, based on your income:

Income $69,000 or less: Use Tax Preparation Software For Free with Free File

If your adjusted gross income was $69,000 or less in 2019, the IRS says you can file for free. But, to do that, you need to start at IRS.gov.

Free file software will become available on the IRS website on January 10, 2020, according to the Free File Alliance. There, a slew of requirements will steer you towards the right software for you. If this year’s free file options are similar to those offered last year, the software you can use will depend on your income, age, tax credit eligibility and residence. Users will be able to select a program from a list or use a tool to determine which software they qualify for. After determining which software they will use, taxpayers can click on a link to that company’s Free File website, according to the IRS.

To ensure you qualify for free use of tax preparation software, you’ll need to know your adjusted gross income. You can calculate your AGI by adding up taxable income like wages and investment gains, then subtracting certain deductions, like those for student loan interest or contributions to a retirement account.

Income Greater Than $69,000: File Taxes For Free Using Free File Fillable Forms

Those with adjusted gross incomes incomes greater than $69,000 may not be able to use free tax software under the Free File program, but they can prepare their taxes digitally with Free File Fillable Forms, the digital answer to sitting down at the table and doing your taxes by hand.

Like Free File’s tax preparation software, the digital forms will also be accessible from the IRS’s Free File webpage. Unlike tax preparation software, the digital form “offers only basic guidance,” the IRS website warns.

“You can think of the Fillable Form as an analog to filling out a paper form by yourself,” says Kathleen DeLaney Thomas, director of the UNC School of Law Tax Institute. “If you have a good understanding of how to report your taxes and you don’t need assistance from tax preparation software, anyone can use the forms.”

While Fillable Forms might be a good option for those used to filing their own taxes with a pen and paper, less confident taxpayers — or those with tricky tax situations — might be wise to consider paying for tax preparation after all. Common scenarios that can complicate the process include self-employment and substantial investments. You can find MONEY’s picks for the best paid tax prep software here.

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