Tips to start prepping for tax prep

By January 17, 2017 April 24th, 2018 No Comments
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Federal income tax filing season will shortly begin, on Jan. 23, so it’s time to think about how your taxes are going to be prepared if you haven’t already decided.

The days of picking up paper forms and filling them out by hand are a thing of the past for most people, and that’s generally a good thing. Filling out tax forms using tax preparation software, or paying someone to fill them out (also using tax preparation software) should eliminate math errors and unfilled blanks, and should make it easier to claim the correct tax credits and deductions.

The good news is, there are more ways than ever to get free access to tax preparation software. And many of those who need or want in-person assistance can get that for free, too.

Now’s the time to explore those options, particularly if you’re expecting a refund and want to speed its arrival. The IRS will start accepting returns on Monday, Jan. 23. Any refunds involving the “earned income” and “additional child” tax credits will be delayed until Feb. 15 due to extra screening, because refundable tax credits have been exploited in recent years by identity thieves.

For those who are in no hurry, the deadline to file this year is April 18.

Do-it-yourself folks who just want free access to tax software and e-filing will find many options. Some have income limits for free access, tied to the federal Free File program, while at least one has no limit. Some private companies hope to up-sell clients to the more robust software needed for more complex returns, while others will seek revenue by showing ads for other services to clients.

Some online options are:

  • IRS Free File ( — Free access to software and e-filing for those with incomes below $64,000, which is about 70 percent of taxpayers. Visit the IRS Free File website starting Jan. 13 for access, links, and answers to questions about filing.
  • Turbotax Absolute Zero — Free online tax prep software and e-filing of federal and state returns for those who made less than $100,000. Covers federal 1040EZ and 1040A forms, but those who itemize deductions, report 1099 or business income, and other situations requiring more complex forms would be directed to purchase software.
  • H&R Block More Zero — Also free to prepare and file federal and state returns, but includes people who itemize deductions (that’s the “more” part). No stated income limit.
  • TaxAct — Similar to Turbotax, with free products and filing for simple returns, and upcharges for those who itemize or have more complex tax situations such as investments and rental properties. Free phone support. No stated income limit.
  • Credit Karma — An ad-supported website known for providing users with free credit score information, Credit Karma is now jumping into the tax prep game, promising “We mean 100% free from start to finish for everyone.” No income limits, support for complex tax returns, and no sharing of information with marketers. Currently Credit Karma is signing people up, and has not posted a date when clients can start working on tax returns.


For those who want free in-person tax assistance, there are several options. In most cases, income limits apply, but are high enough that most taxpayers would qualify. Here’s how to find them.

  • Certified volunteer tax-preparers, for help with basic tax returns, can also be found through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs. Locations can be found online or, for the TCE program, by calling 888-227-7669.


The TCE program is mostly run by AARP and according to the IRS “offers free tax help for all taxpayers, particularly those who are 60 years of age and older, specializing in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues unique to seniors.”

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