Tax headaches? Where to find help for free

Wed Feb 8, 2012 10:59am EST

By Linda Stern

Feb 8 (Reuters) - Even if your financial situation isn't complex, your taxes might be. That's why the Internal Revenue Service and some private nonprofits offer free tax preparation and counseling for older people and low-income filers who need to know their way around myriad credits and other provisions.

Commercial tax preparation programs have jumped in, too, providing at least stripped-down versions of their programs for free. Here's where to go now if you want help on your taxes, but you don't want to pay for it.

FIRST, TRY THE IRS

The tax agency runs several programs to assist taxpayers; you can find a summary at the agency's website ().

* Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is for taxpayers with $50,000 or less in adjusted gross income. Trained volunteers staff desks in community centers, libraries and shopping malls. They can answer your questions, fill out your forms for you and throw in free electronic filing, too. Find the closest one by dialing 1-(800)906-9887.

* Facilitated self assistance. If you make more than $50,000 and want to do your taxes yourself, but just need a few questions answered, you can go to one of the sites listed by the IRS for that extra help ().

* E-file. If you earn less than $57,000, you can go through the IRS's website to find a brand-name software program you can use to prepare your taxes and file them electronically, totally gratis. If you earn more than that, you can go through the same website and use the agency's own fillable forms to do your taxes and file electronically. They will do the math for you, but they won't tell you which forms to use, or automatically post data from one form to another ().

THE NONPROFITS

Many organizations provide free tax help to different populations and in different parts of the country. This list is not exhaustive. A good way to find out if there's an organization near you is to search online for "free tax help" and add specifics about your state and tax situation.

These programs may also offer free help with your state taxes.

* AARP has long run its Tax Aide Counseling program for older taxpayers. Staffed by volunteers and aimed at taxpayers over the age of 60, this program offers in-depth help on the kinds of tax issues that come up

* The United Way offers local free tax preparation for people earning less than $49,000 a year ().

* Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, a Latino-serving social service agency, offers free tax prep for taxpayers earning less than $38,000. ()

* Walmart Foundation sponsors a site, serviced by H&R Block, that offers free federal and state filing for filers earning less than $57,000. ()

* The Armed Forces Tax Council is not a nonprofit; it's a section of the military that coordinates the tax programs of the U.S. military. It works in conjunction with the IRS VITA program, and in most cases puts specially trained volunteers on military bases. In addition, H&R Block offers free online filing to military members at the Military One Source resource site. ()

MAJOR TAX PREPARATION COMPANIES

Most of the big tax-filing programs and companies below offer something for free. In most cases, they are offering free tax prep and free electronic filing for all simple returns, or all returns below a certain income level.

Check out several, because they each have different rules about what they will provide for free. And expect to pony up cash if you want to do your state taxes as well. Most charge for that separately.

* TaxAct seems to have the most full-featured free product because it includes schedules for small businesses and capital gains. ()

* TurboTax offers free tax prep, live advice and electronic filing to all taxpayers, regardless of income, but not all forms are included. Small-business owners need to buy the program to get the forms they need. ()

* H&R Block offers its software and online filing for free for simple returns. It also works with a number of nonprofits to offer more full-featured software versions for free. ()

* The rest of the bunch. Other tax prep software firms that provide at least one version of their product free to some taxpayers include CompleteTax (); Jackson Hewitt () and TaxSlayer ().

Choose the right free plan for you, and it should leave at least a little bit of cash in your pocket to pay your tax bill.

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