Smart TaxesSmart Taxes

It's not too late to find free tax help

Volunteer and community programs will help you with your taxes, though some set income limits or deal only with simple returns. Anyone can file free online.

By MSN Money Partner Apr 11, 2012 8:50PM
This post is by Kelly Phillips Erb at Forbes.com.

 

With the minutes ticking away until Tax Day, my "in" box is rapidly filling up with questions about where to find free tax help.

 

So first, an obligatory stern talking to in my mom voice: Free is not always better and it's not always good. Sometimes free is just free.

 

That said, I understand that it costs money to use a professional preparer. I also understand that not everyone is in the position to pay for professional tax services. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should settle for subpar services. Good free (or low-cost) tax preparation services and software are available. Here are some to consider:

 

IRS Free File

 

The Internal Revenue Service wants you to use Free File. I know this because the agency sends me a lot of emails telling me so. I also know because the IRs has invested some serious resources in designing a clever logo with an even cleverer slogan: "It's fast. It's safe. It's free." (Post continues after video.)

And they also shout at taxpayers on the web site: "EVERYONE is Eligible to Free File!"

 

Since it’s in all caps, you know they’re serious.

 

All snark aside, Free File is a really great resource for taxpayers. There are two versions: a free, federal income tax prep and electronic filing program for eligible taxpayers and the Free File Fillable Forms.

 

IRS VITA

 

If you’ve read my posts over the years, you know I’m a big fan of VITA, or the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program. VITA is manned by trained volunteers. I used to help coordinate the local VITA program at our senior center and I can vouch for the caliber of volunteers. I can also vouch for the fact that volunteers don’t get a penny for their time but do appreciate cookies (clears throat).

 

The VITA Program is generally targeted to taxpayers who make $50,000 or less and have a relatively simple return. To find a VITA site near you, call 1-800-906-9887 or check online.

 

Help for those 60-plus

 

The IRS offers free preparation for those ages 60 and above through its Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE). TCE sites tend to focus on tax issues related to pensions and retirement plans. Like the VITA program, TCE centers are staffed with volunteers.

 

As part of the program, the AARP offers Tax-Aide counseling program at more than 7,000 sites nationwide during the filing season. To find a Tax-Aide site, call 1-888-227-7669 or go to the AARP website.

 

IRS-certified volunteers

 

Apparently the IRS used up its branding budget on the Free File slogan and logo because the branding on "Facilitated Self-Assistance" clearly needs some work.

 

But the idea of the program is a good one: If a taxpayer has a simple tax return and needs a little help or do not have access to a computer, he ro she can visit one of the participating tax preparation sites. There,  an IRS-certified volunteer will guide the taxpayer through the process. You can find a site here

 

Help for military

 

The Armed Forces Tax Council consists of tax program coordinators for the Marine Corps, Air Force, Army, Navy and Coast Guard. At tax time, volunteers work with members of the military and their families to provide free preparation assistance with tax issues specific to the military, such as combat zone tax benefits and those pesky new Earned Income Tax Credit guidelines.

 

Since this program is coordinated through VITA, you can call 1-800-906-9887 or find a site online.

 

Churches, law firms and good folks

 

Not all free tax preparation sites are IRS-sponsored. Sometimes, the private sector offers free tax services.

 

Check your local newspaper, radio and TV to see if there are any free tax prep services offered near you. But be smart and ask questions before you hand over your financial information. The IRS recently issed a warning about upticks in fraudulent schemes, especially those aimed at the elderly.

 

Commercial/retail software packages

 

Most of the popular software packages offer a bare-bones tax preparation option for free. In most cases, this means a basic return (like a 1040-EZ) or a limited Form 1040.

 

Extras -- like exile and state returns -- may cost you. As with anything, read the fine print.

 

So there you have it. No excuses. Go, get your taxes done. And you’re welcome.

 

More from Forbes and MSN Money:

 

 

 

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