How to Get Help Preparing Your Tax Return -- for Free

By Danny Vena Markets Fool.com

My mother-in-law is 90 years old. She has a good pension, draws Social Security, and has great medical coverage. While she's not rolling in dough, she is making ends meet. Not every senior is so lucky. According to the National Council on Aging, over 25 million Americans aged 60 or older are economically insecure, existing on just over $29,000 per person. For those with disabilities, the economic reality is even more stark, with a poverty rate above 20%.

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The IRS recognizes these issues and has programs available to provide free assistance to certain taxpayers who may need help preparing their tax returns.

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Volunteer Income Tax Assistance

The IRS offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to several groups of taxpayers, including those with disabilities, those who have difficulty with the English language, and taxpayers who make less than $54,000 per year. If you fall into one of these categories, the IRS has volunteers from the professional tax community ready to help. There is, however, a limit to this generosity. There are numerous forms that it won't prepare: a Schedule C, profit or loss from a business; a Schedule D, capital gains and losses; and several other complicated and less often used forms. Be sure to review the entire list. If you qualify based on the criteria outlined above, find a location near you using the locator tools listed below.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly

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The other program is Tax Counseling for the Elderly, which provides assistance to all taxpayers in matters relating to pensions and other retirement-related issues. For example, they can help you determine how much, if any, of your Social Security benefit is taxable, whether a given retirement plan or pension is qualified or non-qualified, or what your required minimum distribution might be.Those aged 60 and older get priority. The volunteers who assist with these programs are uniquely qualified to help, as many of them are retired and volunteering by way of a nonprofit organization. If you have retirement or pension related question, find a location near you using the locator tool below.

Where to get help

VITA and TCE sites are found in convenient locations such as community centers, schools, and libraries. Others may be hosted by the AARP Foundation's Tax-Aide program. You can use theIRS locator toolor call (800) 906-9887. You'll also want to check out the AARPlocator serviceor call AARP at (888) 227-7669.

Finally, there are services available for those who wish to prepare their own return at some of these locations. They can prepare their taxes using web-based programs located at select sites, with an IRS-certified volunteer to assist. To determine if this service is available at the site near you, look for "Self-Prep" in the site listing. For more information, see thisIRS notice.

What to bring

Once you determine that you meet the requirements for one of these programs, be sure to gather all the necessary paperwork. Being unprepared will cause delays in the process. Here is the list from the IRS (and note that if you're married filing jointly, both spouses must be present):

  • All W-2 and 1099 forms
  • Information on other income
  • Information on all deductions and credits
  • A copy of last year's tax return
  • Proof of account for direct deposit of refund
  • Social Security cards or Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITIN) for you, your spouse, and/or dependents
  • Proof of identification for yourself and/or your spouse
  • Total paid to day care providers and their tax ID numbers
  • Birth dates for you, spouse, and dependents on the return
  • Proof of foreign status if applying for ITIN
  • Forms 1095-A, B, or C (Affordable Care Act statements)
  • For prior-year returns, bring copies of income transcripts from the IRS (and state, if applicable)

The complexity of the tax code and the cost to prepare a return may be too much for some taxpayers. If you're one of them, it pays to take advantage of these free programs.

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