The IRS has made it very easy to prepare and electronically file your own income tax return through Free File at no cost. I recommend this route for anyone who is comfortable filing his or her own income tax return and has an uncomplicated tax return with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $57,000 or less. Usually this is a taxpayer with one or two W2s and taking the standard deduction.
To use the program, simply visit the IRS website and click on “Free File” located on the right side under the orange bar entitled “Filing and Payment.” This takes you to another location where vendors offer free filing as a service to the general public. Some vendors have age and resident state requirements, but there are plenty of vendors and it’s important to review the list to find the best fit.
The programs are easy to follow and require you to input your personal data as well as specified data from your W2 form. When complete, click the button to electronically file your tax return. You can even choose to have your refund direct deposited.
If you live in a state that levies an income tax, you may have to visit your state’s taxing agency website to prepare and file your state income tax return, which means inputting your data all over again. So look for one of the Free File vendors who offer assistance with state tax preparation. Some vendors allow you to file state income tax returns for free while others charge a fee, so make sure you review all the details.
For those who earned more than $57,000, you may still file for free. There are free online forms available, and both options allow people to file returns electronically and use direct deposit, which is the fastest way to get refunds.
If you are a senior citizen, you may access the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly partners who will e-file your return for free. Some states offer tax preparation services for low-income filers.
More than 80% of all American taxpayers now file their tax returns electronically. There has never been a reported security breach at the IRS, and the agency claims to have “processed more than 1 billion individual tax returns safely and securely since the nationwide debut of electronic filing in 1990.”
The IRS generates refunds at a faster pace when a tax return is filed electronically. It makes sense: If you paper file your tax return, you must wait for the post office to deliver your return to the IRS. The return then must be keypunched into the system, which makes room for an error. By the time your tax return is processed and the refund check released it’s probably a good 5-10 days longer than if you had transmitted the data electronically.
The fastest way to get your refund is through direct deposit to your bank account. It takes time to prepare a paper check and then there’s the long journey from the IRS service center to your mailbox.
If you owe tax, you can e-file whenever you want then set an automatic payment date anytime on or before the April 15 deadline. You can pay by check or money order, by debit or credit card, or by transferring funds electronically from your bank account. If you do not transmit the funds electronically and prefer to mail a paper check, you must print a voucher – IRS Form 1040-V to send with your check. Make sure to put your Social Security Number and tax year on the memo line of the check.
If you cannot file your tax return by April 15, you may file for an extension using IRS Form 4868 – also available via Free File. Just remember that an extension is only for extra time to file, not for extra time to pay.
If you would like a volunteer to help you prepare the return via Free File, go to IRS.gov and search for “VITA” to find a volunteer-equipped self-preparation site location near you.
Bonnie Lee is an enrolled agent admitted to practice and representing taxpayers in all 50 states at all levels within the Internal Revenue Service. She is the owner of Taxpertise in Sonoma, Calif., and the author of Entrepreneur Press book, “Taxpertise, The Complete Book of Dirty Little Secrets and Hidden Deductions for Small Business that the IRS Doesn't Want You to Know.” Her new e-book Taxpertise for the Creative Mind Murder, Mayem, Romance, Comedy and Tax Tips for Artists of all Kinds is available at all major booksellers. Follow Bonnie Lee on Twitter and on Facebook.