Did you know that the government can help you file your federal taxes for free? It’s called Free File, and it’s open and available at the beginning of tax time each year if you meet certain requirements.
Luckily, plenty of Americans qualify for IRS Free File, so chances are good that you can take advantage of the program to pay your taxes. And if you can’t, there are plenty of other free tax filing programs you may be able to use.
Here’s everything you need to know about Free File.
What is Free File?
IRS Free File is a way for you to file your federal income taxes for free. The IRS teams up with leading tax preparation software companies to allow you to use the software for free if your income is below a certain amount. That amount will likely change from year to year, so make sure to check on the IRS’s website before you go to file.
If your income is above the set amount, then you don’t get to use the software for free, but you can still file your taxes at no cost using free downloadable PDF forms (more on this below). This method is more complex and requires you to know how to file your own returns.
When you use Free File, the tax prep software guides you through your tax return. All you have to do is answer some questions, and the software does the math for you.
Free File and COVID-19
This year, Free File is more than just a way to file your taxes for free: now you can also use the Free File program to claim your 2020 COVID-19 stimulus checks if you didn’t receive them.
You may not have realized it, but the stimulus checks are actually a Recovery Rebate Credit, which is a credit on your federal taxes. A tax credit is a specific amount of money you can take off of your taxes owed, sort of like a discount or a coupon. Most people already received this credit in the form of stimulus checks, which the IRS calls Economic Impact Payments.
You should use Free File to claim any missing payments even if you don’t owe taxes and wouldn’t be filing a return this year. That means even college students could claim their stimulus if they didn’t receive it.
You’ll need to know how much you already received in Economic Impact Payments, and you will use that amount to request a Recovery Rebate Credit in the amount you are still owed. When you use Free File, the tax prep software will help you determine the right amount you are owed.
You can also use this time to set up direct deposit with the IRS, so your next stimulus check can be deposited straight into your bank account right away.
Should you file now?
If you’ve added an eligible dependent child to your home or your income decreased, you should file sooner rather than later, so that you can receive what you are owed.
Plus, filing sooner rather than later ensures that you’ll get your refund sooner and you’ll have that cash to save, invest, or do with what you will.
Should you file later?
While it’s a good idea to file early if your income dropped due to the pandemic, it may be better to wait and file after the checks are given out if you got a raise that put you over the income limit.
In either case, you’ll probably get your check sooner if you file right away.
Who is eligible for Free File?
So you’ve decided to use Free File for your taxes. You can use Free File if you have an adjusted gross household income below $72,000 (as of 2021).
To find your adjusted gross income, use the formula below:
Formula – Total income – total of adjustments = adjusted gross income
Your total income includes wages, bonuses, capital gains (such as from selling stock you bought this year), and business income. Adjustments, on the other hand, are costs you have paid that lower your taxable income.
Adjustments to income include:
- 401(k) or traditional IRA contributions.
- Educator expenses (for teachers – there’s a $250 cap).
- Alimony payments.
- Student loan interest.
The $72,000 threshold applies whether you are single or married. Even if you are married and you file jointly, your combined AGI must be below $72,000 to take advantage of free tax prep software.
However, even if you earn more than $72,000 in salary, you might be eligible to use Free File if you have enough adjustments to income to bring your AGI below that level.
You can use Free File whether you’re single or married, with or without kids, have a job, or are self-employed (or have no job at all). You just have to meet the AGI limit.
Free File fillable forms
If your adjusted gross income exceeds $72,000, then you can still file for free using Free File fillable forms. If you’re comfortable filling out PDF forms using Adobe Acrobat, you could give these free forms a try. Fill them out, sign them, and submit them to the IRS for no cost.
However, these forms don’t come with the tax help that tax preparation software offers, so if you have questions, you’re on your own.
Also, you can’t make any changes once you’ve filed using these forms. And the IRS deletes every account yearly, so you have to start from scratch each year – no logging in and using last year’s information.
Who is Free File not right for?
If you’re looking for software companies that offer this feature, one option is H&R Block. You can use them to file for free if your tax situation is simple. They may also be able to help you file your state taxes for free, too.
One of the most well-known tax brands, TurboTax has a free version, too, and it’s perfect if your tax situation is simple. If all you have is one job and/or unemployment income, TurboTax’s Free Edition might be all you need to file for free and claim your refund.
Finally, for completely free tax filing no matter your tax situation, there’s also Credit Karma Tax. There’s no income threshold to use the service, and they even offer live chat if you get stuck and need some help.
What about state returns?
IRS Free File is for federal returns. However, many states have hopped on the bandwagon and will let you file your state taxes using Free File. These states include:
- New York.
- North Carolina.
- North Dakota.
- Rhode Island.
- South Carolina.
- West Virginia.
- The District of Columbia (not a state, but still).
Make sure to check with your chosen Free File tax prep provider to see whether they participate in Free File for state taxes. Unfortunately, it varies from company to company, even within a state.
Where to get IRS Free File
Free File partners
You can find Free File at irs.gov/freefile, or by using the official IRS2go app.
The IRS tapped many brand-name tax prep companies to be part of the Free File Alliance, which is the official name for the public-private partnership. But not every service is right for every person; it will depend on your adjusted gross income (AGI) and what state you live in.
Oh, and if you’re in the military, you can use MilTax to file for free.
What to watch out for
As you are searching for the right free tax help, you need to be aware of two pitfalls.
Scammers will try to scare you or trick you into giving them your personal information or bank info. They might call, email, or message over social media. The real IRS will never use those forms of communication to request your info.
If that happens to you, ignore the message and report it to the IRS at [email protected]
“Free tax prep” bait-and-switch
Many tax prep companies will advertise “free tax filing,” only to turn around and try to charge you once you’ve entered all your info. If that happens to you, you don’t have to go forward with it.
If you qualify for Free File, don’t let a tax company con you into paying. Go back to the IRS Free File tool and find a company that will actually let you file for free.
Tax time can be stressful enough, with the constant changes from year to year and the worry of getting something wrong or owing money to the IRS.
It’s definitely worth your while to see if you qualify for IRS Free File or another free tax filing service, so you don’t have to add “tax prep costs” to your list of concerns.