The 2024 tax filing season is in full swing at the IRS. And although doing one's taxes is a near-universally dreaded task, there is a glimmer of good news: It doesn't have to be expensive.
This year, the IRS is testing a pilot program where certain Americans can file their federal taxes for free directly with the government. The program, called IRS Direct File, is becoming available in stages to people with simple returns in a handful of states.
In addition, millions of taxpayers are eligible to file their taxes for free thanks to IRS Free File, a partnership the government launched with several online tax prep services in 2003. Depending on your income, you may qualify for guided tax preparation from one of eight name-brand companies.
Spoiler alert: You won't find TurboTax or H&R Block among those options. TurboTax and H&R Block are no longer affiliated with the IRS Free File program. That said, both advertise free tax prep services on their websites, and there are a plethora of other tax software options for taxpayers who don't want to pay to file a return.
Here's what you need to know.
How to file taxes for free
Identify whether you are eligible to file for free
To be eligible for IRS Free File, you’ll need to calculate your adjusted gross income. You can do this by taking your income (wages, capital gains, dividends, retirement distributions, business income and such) and subtracting any adjustments (student loan interest, alimony, teacher expenses, retirement contributions and the like).
If your AGI for 2023 was $79,000 or less, you qualify for free guided tax preparation through the IRS. The $79,000 limit for IRS Free File applies to both single taxpayers and families. If your adjusted gross income is over $79,000, you qualify only to use Free File Fillable Forms, in which you complete electronic forms yourself without guidance.
To be eligible for IRS Direct File, you must have lived in one of the 12 participating states in 2023. They include Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington and Wyoming. (Note that Direct File is intended for federal returns, not state ones.)
For Direct File, you’ll also need to have a simple tax return. If you’re claiming much beyond W-2 wages, Social Security, unemployment income or under $1,500 in interest, you’ll need to pursue a different option. Direct File can only handle things like the standard deduction; earned income tax credit; child tax credit; student loan interest deduction; educator expenses; and credits for dependents.
Pick a free service or program to use
IRS Direct File
Direct File is currently in a test phase; the portal is opening and closing at random times so as to manage the number of people using it at any given time. Check the webpage frequently to see if you’re able to join.
In the meantime, you can check your eligibility on the IRS's Direct File webpage. There’s a brief quiz you can take to determine whether you qualify; expect to answer questions about where you live, whether you have a Social Security number or Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, which tax forms you have, what your filing status is, what your income is, whether you plan to itemize and more.
IRS Free File
If you qualify for guided tax preparation, head to the IRS website to see the eight options available from the Free File Alliance in 2024:
- Drake (1040.com)
- On-Line Taxes
- TaxHawk (FreeTaxUSA)
Each of these services has its own restrictions, so read the fine print. Some offers are only valid for people who live in certain states, are a certain age or make below a certain amount of money.
IRS Free File is focused on federal tax returns, not state returns, so you'll need to pay extra attention if you live in a state with income taxes. A few of the IRS Free File offers, like OLT.com and FreeTaxUSA, give a free state filing to anyone who qualifies for a free federal return. Others only give free state filing to people in certain states. A few don't offer free state returns, period.
Need help navigating it all? Enter your personal information into the lookup tool at IRS.gov, and it'll narrow down the choices for you.
If you don't qualify for guided prep, check out Free File Fillable Forms. This isn't for beginners — you have to select the right form, type in your data, make sure you're not introducing errors and file the federal return on your own. Though it's free, this method does require a bit of tax knowledge.
FYI: IRS Free File is available in English and Spanish.
Free versions of online tax software
Despite no longer being affiliated with IRS Free File, both TurboTax and H&R Block — two juggernauts in the tax-prep space — still offer ways you can file for free.
TurboTax's free service is focused on simple tax returns — if you file Form 1040 only, have W-2 income, take the standard deduction and claim basic credits like the child tax credit. There are currently two ways to do your taxes for free through TurboTax: Free Edition and Live Assisted Basic.
Free Edition is a DIY option that's available the whole year. TurboTax Live Assisted Basic, through which you can get expert help, is free through March 31. (After that, it’ll cost $89, with state included.)
H&R Block's Free Online service starts at $0 for federal and state tax prep. It includes coverage for the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit, education expenses and retirement income. For tax situations that are complicated beyond that, you'll have to pay. Live tax help, access to six years of storage and assistance reporting items like freelance income, crypto sales and real estate taxes also cost extra through H&R Block.
Other free tax software options include FreeTaxUSA, which boasts a “free federal return for everyone” on its website and supports the earned income credit, investments and small business taxes in addition to complex federal returns. (Filing your state taxes with FreeTaxUSA costs $14.99 per state. You can also upgrade to the Deluxe Edition for $7.99 and access Pro Support for $39.99.)
There’s also Cash App Taxes, which is the rebranded version of Credit Karma Tax. Its website boasts “100% free tax filing” with “no hidden fees, charges or surprises.”
Cash App Taxes supports a variety of documents and tax situations, including Form 1040, student loan interest, Schedule A itemized deductions, the first-time homebuyer credit and self-employment. But you'll have to seek tax prep elsewhere if you're a minor, have foreign earned income or fall into a few other categories. You also can't use Cash App Taxes to file state taxes if you haven't already filed your federal return with it.
Speaking of state taxes, you may want to check your local government websites for information about where to file for free or cheap. States like California and Pennsylvania have their own free e-filing systems for residents who qualify.
VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance)
Whether you're doing taxes yourself or prefer a preparer, the IRS has two initiatives that provide free help for taxpayers who need it: the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. VITA is targeted at people who make $64,000 or less a year, have disabilities or speak limited English. Americans 60 and up who have questions about retirement, pensions and such are eligible to get advice through TCE.
The programs typically operate out of libraries, college buildings and community centers. Use the IRS's free-tax-prep tool to find a provider near you. (You might have to make an appointment.)
Another option for free tax help is AARP Foundation Tax-Aide, which offers both in-person and online tax assistance to "anyone, free of charge, with a focus on taxpayers who are over 50 and have low to moderate income," according to its website. The program runs through April 15.
Gather your paperwork
Filing your taxes requires a whole bunch of documents. The exact papers you must gather depend on your situation, but most people will need to reference income statements like Form W-2 (from your employer) and any Forms 1099 (for freelance income, interest income, gambling winnings, et cetera).
You'll also need to know your Social Security number or Taxpayer Identification Number, as well as your prior year adjusted gross income or your self-selected PIN. This should be on your 2022 tax return. You may also need a government ID.
Free tax filing FAQ
Where can I file taxes for free?
Check out the above options.
The IRS is pretty strict about what its tax software partners can and can't charge for. Free File participants are prohibited from making you pay "anything to file your federal tax return" and asking you to buy "any products or services (for example, promotional rebates) in exchange for having your federal tax return prepared," according to the IRS website. They also can't offer you bank products that come with fees.
If you're doing your taxes on your own, be diligent. It's easy to get fooled into paying for add-ons like "Pay With My Refund," "Refund Processing Service" or "Refund Transfer." These functions often offer to take money from your refund to cover any prep fees you owe — but usually charge an additional fee in the process.
Be careful what you click on, and read the fine print.
Can I file a tax extension online for free?
If you need extra time to get your federal taxes done, you can electronically request an extension with the IRS by using Free File (regardless of what your income is). You can also submit Form 4868 by visiting a preparer's website directly or make an online payment to the IRS and indicate that it's connected to an extension.
Filing for an extension will give you six additional months to file your 2023 taxes. But take note: Even though an extension moves your deadline for filing back, you still have to pay any taxes you owe by April 15.
Bottom line on filing taxes for free
If you're hoping to file your taxes for free, a good place to start is the IRS website. Depending on your income level and needs, you may qualify for guided tax prep from the IRS itself or an online provider. If you don’t qualify for Free File and have a bit of tax knowledge, you can use the agency’s Fillable Forms option to do your taxes for free.
Failing that, browse offers on websites like TurboTax, H&R Block and Cash App Taxes directly to see if your federal return is simple enough to do for free. Do your research, gather your paperwork and be sure to ask for help if you need it.
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