by Kristen Doerer for ProPublica, Justin Elliott and Karim Doumar
The ProPublica Free Tax Guide
Free, Fact-Checked Tax Information. That’s All.
Most Americans are eligible for free tax-preparation services, but the truly free options can be hard to find. If you’re not careful, you could end up using a service that says it’s free but demands payment after you’ve spent time entering your information.
Now that the IRS haspushedthe deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17, you have even more time to make sure you’re using the service that’s right for you.
How do you file online for free?
If you make less than$72,000 a year, you can find free tax filing options at the IRS Free File webpage.
Each site has its own eligibility requirements, so be sure to find one that will be free for you.
Best for: People who make less than the income cap and want a convenient and easy way to file online.
If you make more than $72,000 a year, you may have access to free options offered by several commercial tax prep companies, like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block or TaxAct.
But buyer beware: Some companies use a variety of tactics to try to wring money out of you, often only throwing up a paywall after you’ve gone through the trouble of inputting most of your information.
The widely advertised “free” options are typically only really free based on which tax forms you need to file. Which forms are free and which will trigger a demand for a fee depends on the company. So read the fine print before you decide.
- Here is the list of forms supported by H&R Block’s “free online” version.
- Here is the list of forms supported by TaxAct’s “free” offer. Click the tab labeled “forms.”
- Here is the list of forms supported by TurboTax “Free Edition.”
Best for: People who don’t qualify for Free File but have income only from a standard job and perhaps a bank account, and who want to file online.
If you’re in the military, you can use MilTax, a service provided by the Department of Defense that uses a version of H&R Block’s tax software. It is available for free to active-duty service members as well as those in the National Guard or the reserves, as well as their families. There are no income or tax form restrictions. There are also free, in-person options to get tax help if you are in the military or family — see the section below.
You can also get free advice from a professional who understands tax issues specific to the military. The phone number is 800-342-9647, or you can live chat with them.
Best for: People in the military, guard or reserves and their families.
How can I get personal tax help for free?
You can qualify for the IRS’Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program if you:
- Make less than around $57,000 a year, OR
- Live with a disability, OR
- Speak limited English.
You can qualify for the IRS’Tax Counseling for the Elderly program if you:
- Are at least 60 years old.
These programs match you with IRS-certified volunteers across the country who can help with free basic income tax preparation and electronic filing. You can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find someone to help you. Keep in mind that some locations may require an appointment.
Best for: People who are confused by the tax process and want someone to help walk them through the process.
Best for: People in the military and their families who want advice from someone who knows the ins and outs of military tax filing.
Why is TurboTax charging me?
If you make less than $39,000 a year (or $72,000 if you’re in the military) and TurboTax is telling you it costs money to file, you are probably using the wrong version of TurboTax. Don’t worry, there is a way to access the truly free version.
As ProPublica reported in 2019, TurboTax purposely hid its Free File product and directed taxpayers to a version where many had to pay, called the TurboTax Free Edition. If you clicked on this “FREE Guaranteed” option, you could input a lot of your information, only to be told toward the end of the process that you need to pay.
You can still accessTurboTax’s Free File version. This version is offered through the Free File agreement.
TurboTax’s misleadingadvertisingandwebsite designdirected users to more expensive versions of the software, even if they qualified to file for free. After our stories published, some people demanded and got refunds. Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, faces several investigations and lawsuits over this practice. The company has denied wrongdoing, and has moved to acquire other free tax-preparation companies like Credit Karma.
Following ProPublica’s reporting, the IRS announced an update to its agreement with the tax-preparation companies. Among other things, the update bars the companies from hiding their Free File offerings from Google search results. It also makes it so each company has to name their Free File service the same way, using the format: IRS Free File Program delivered by [COMPANY NAME].
What’s the difference between TurboTax’s “Free Guaranteed” and IRS Free File Delivered by TurboTax?
TurboTax Free Edition is not always free. It has only been free for tax returns that the company defines as “simple.” That often means people with student loans and freelance income actually have to pay to file. Look for Intuit’s “IRS Free File Program delivered by TurboTax.” This year, you are eligible if you:
- Make less than $39,000 a year, OR
- Make less than $72,000 a year and serve in the military.
What is Free File, and who is the Free File Alliance?
The Free File Alliance is actually a group of tax companies that — contrary to the name — is in the business of charging people to help them file their taxes. They spent a lot of money to make sure that the IRS didn’t develop its own free tax filing service that would compete with what they have to offer. As part of the new Free File Alliance deal, the IRS is now able to offer a competing service, but it’s not doing so this year.
The Free File Alliance companies have agreed to offer free tax filing for a certain percentage of the population based on income. Head to the IRS website to see which option is the best for you. These are the companies in the alliance:
- 1040NOW Corp.
- Free Tax Returns
- OnLine Taxes
About this guide:
ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, we’ve covered the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematicallyundermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products. This guide is not personalized tax advice, and you should speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.
Update, March 17, 2021: This post was updated to reflect that the IRS has pushed the deadline for 2020 taxes to May 17.
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For more coverage, read ProPublica’s previous reporting on the IRS or the tax prep industry.
Kristen Doerer is a reporter in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared in PBS NewsHour, The Guardian and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @k2doe.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom.
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