If you don't make much money, you might assume doing your taxes will be simple. After all, there isn't much information you need to give the Internal Revenue Service, given your meager paycheck.
But, of course, some people who find it tough to make ends meet don't have just one job - they have two or three, and perhaps they earn extra money working at home, which can complicate a tax form. Additional challenges: Some taxpayers are part of a blended family, or part of a family unit that isn't quite family. So while you may not earn much, it doesn't necessarily mean your taxes will be simple.
Fortunately, many low- to moderate-income individuals can get free professional help to do their taxes.
[Read: How to Prepare to Do Your Tax Return.]
"There's a wide swath of low- to moderate-income taxpayers who can get their taxes done for free - approximately 100 million taxpayers who are eligible," says Tim Hugo, executive director of the Free File Alliance, a coalition of companies that work with the IRS to provide free tax preparation and filing.
So if you can't afford to hire someone to do your taxes or buy software, you may not have to go it alone. Here are the questions you likely have - and the answers.
Who qualifies? Generally, if your adjusted gross income is $52,000 or less, you probably qualify for help. Adjusted gross income, for those who need a refresher, is your gross income after exemptions and deductions. Your gross income is all your income - not just your salary, but alimony, proceeds from a car you sold and so on. So if your income is close to $52,000, you might not actually know if you qualify until you do your taxes and see what number you land on.
To take advantage of free tax software - more on that in a moment - your adjusted gross income will generally need to be $58,000 or less.
Where do I go? You will probably want to find a Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, known as VITA, or a Tax Counseling for the Elderly program, known as TCE. Both are partly funded by the IRS and located just about everywhere - in universities, elementary schools, recreation centers, churches, employment centers, libraries and even shopping malls. The volunteers who staff VITAs are often retired professionals who want to give back to the community, or college students who use the volunteer time to get college credit.
You can find a VITA at the IRS website or by calling 1-800-906-9887.
Most TCE sites are run by the AARP Foundation's Tax Aide Program. If you go to the IRS website to search for a TCE, it will direct you to an AARP website.
You or an older relative could also call 1-888-227-7669 to get help at a TCE. To qualify for help, you have to be at least 60 - hardly an age anyone considers "elderly," but it's free help, so best not to worry about the semantics.
Can I get help online? Instead of finding a VITA or TCE, you could do your taxes on your computer. There are a couple of good options if you want to go that route. For instance, myfreetaxes.com is a free service funded by Walmart Foundation, Goodwill Industries International, National Disability Institute and United Way Worldwide. The website offers free tax preparation software that can be used for federal taxes and state taxes in all 50 states, including the District of Columbia.
You can also go to irs.gov, then look for the "free file" logo. Click on "start free file now," and you'll be directed to a page with 14 commercial tax software companies that will allow you to file with them for free, provided you aren't over that $58,000 threshold.
Some of the 14 brands you'll likely recognize include H&R Block and TurboTax. Keep in mind that there are different eligibility requirements, and some companies may charge for filing state taxes.
What's in it for them? The cynic in you may wonder if there's a catch to using these services. Hugo insists there isn't. "Free File has evolved over the last few years. Five or 10 years ago, the companies would try to sell you tax services. One of the companies, a few years ago, if you filed your taxes with them, would try to sell you flowers. There's none of that now," Hugo says.
The only thing in it for the companies now is goodwill, Hugo says, and the hope that if your income climbs at some point, perhaps you'll fondly remember the tax preparation company that helped you out and will use its services as a paying customer.
Laura Scherler, director of financial stability at United Way Worldwide, echoes the same sentiment about myfreetaxes.com, for those who decide to use that service, and says the site is free for eligible filers. "There are no hidden fees or other charges," she says.
Of the VITA and TCE programs out there, she adds: "The community-based tax preparation services offered by nonprofit organizations are also always free. The volunteer tax preparers that participate in these programs are certified by the IRS, and every return is subject to a quality review to ensure its accuracy."
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