The IRS estimates that 60 percent of Americans use a tax preparer to do their taxes. But the rest of us have ways to get that help for free.Tax season officially opened Friday when the IRS began accepting individual returns for processing. So now is the time to gather your documents and head to a face-to-face meeting with a tax preparer or crunch the numbers yourself with tax software.Neither has to cost a dime.This may be a good year to try a no-cost alternative because the forms haven’t changed much, as opposed to a year ago, when a last-minute tax law caused a change in forms and delayed the IRS from accepting returns until mid-February. “The tax law is very similar to last year,” said Dan Murphy, co-coordinator of AARP’s Tax-Aide program, the largest no-cost in-person tax preparer in Tarrant County.The program, which started Wednesday, has 40 sites in Tarrant County. Trained and certified volunteers provide tax preparation and electronic filing to everyone, regardless of age or income, Murphy said.“Our volunteers have a week of training,” he said. “There are very few returns we don’t handle. We’ve had millionaires come in before.” The program is set up at all Fort Worth libraries and at all Arlington libraries except the Northeast branch, as well as area senior centers, Murphy said. To find the location nearest you, call 211. Walk-ins are welcome, but filers are encouraged to make an appointment. Last year, the program processed 11,500 returns with 175 volunteers, Murphy said. For those who prefer to do their own taxes, TaxACT offers free online software at www.taxact.com. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa, company also provides free e-filing and tax help by email.TaxACT’s Free Federal Edition includes forms for such complicated issues as income and losses from self-employment, investments, businesses, capital assets, rental property and farming. The software includes the importing of last year’s return if it was prepared by one of two leading providers, as well as quick entry tools for investments and forms W-2 and 1099.“One of the founding principles of our company was to provide all taxpayers with free federal tax preparation and e-filing without restrictions,” TaxACT spokeswoman Jessi Dolmage said. The IRS also provides forms at www.irs.gov for all income levels. Unlike with the tax software, you’ll see no prompt boxes to help you fill them out, but the forms will do the math and allow you to electronically file for free. The forms for this tax season became available Friday.For the 60 million taxpayers who use a 1040A or EZ form, TurboTax, the leading software tax preparer, has a new free offer this year.“This group is paying far too much money to get their taxes done,” said Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant for TurboTax. New this year to the free version of the software is the ability to import your W-2 from more than 400,000 employers and financial institutions, Greene-Lewis said.“Filers can put their employer ID number in, and it will automatically transfer into their tax return,” she said. The free version also allows for a transfer of data from last year’s TurboTax return, which speeds up the process, she said.TurboTax automatically checks taxpayers’ returns as they go, searching for deductions and credits to which they are entitled, Greene-Lewis said. The software giant also provides tax experts — all CPAs and enrolled agents — by phone for free.As an incentive for those who expect a refund, TurboTax added an extra 5 percent to the refund when filers use it to buy an Amazon.com gift card from TurboTax. If you want to use your iPhone or Android smartphone to do your taxes, TurboTax has a free app called SnapTax for 1040A and EZ filers. Take a photo of your W-2 and answer a few questions, and you can file from your phone, Greene-Lewis said. SnapTax is available in Spanish. TaxACT also has a free app for easy returns. For filers with incomes under $52,000, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program provides free face-to-face preparation, with an emphasis on the earned income tax credit and other financial help.“We use the tax preparation service to link them to financial education, job skills training, savings bond programs,” said Bill Gunn, manager of the VITA program at Catholic Charities. “We’re more than just tax preparation. We try to help.”This year, Catholic Charities will have eight sites for tax help, including at Western Hills United Methodist Church in far west Fort Worth and at GRACE, a nonprofit in Grapevine.“One of the things we learned from last year was we had holes in our coverage area,” Gunn said. “These new sites should help close those holes.”Those interested in making an appointment or finding a site can call 211 or visit a new website, www.FreeTaxDFW.com. Gunn is still looking for volunteers. Those interested should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.Arlington, in partnership with the United Way and others, will host VITA sites in five locations.The IRS provides tax software through its Free File program for those with household incomes of $58,000 and below. In its 12th year, Free File includes software from 14 commercial preparers, including TurboTax and H&R Block. Each sets its own eligibility requirements, usually based on income, state residency, age or military status. The program includes free e-filing, and some vendors offer their products in Spanish. To see the offerings, go to www.irs.gov/freefile.Before you pay for software or a tax preparer, check out your free alternatives.
Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net