The holidays are over, we’ve had our first major snow of the season, and 2020 is finally in the rear-view mirror, which means that it is once again time to fret over filing your taxes.
This year, tax season officially starts on February 12, which means that this is the day when the IRS will begin to process tax returns and refunds. Plenty of companies advertise their services this time of year, with many of them showcasing some sort of free option for basic tax returns—the key word being basic. In fact, most of these advertised “free” services are intended primarily to upsell you on paid services, often by forcing you to upgrade to a premium version for anything beyond a W-2, even for something as simple as interest on a savings account.
However, what these companies don’t want to advertise is that they are required to provide additional free services to most taxpayers under the IRS Free File Program. This program exists as a form of compromise between the IRS and tax prep companies – fulfilling a government initiative to provide free tax services to taxpayers while restricting the IRS from creating software to compete directly with private companies. This year, anyone with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of less than $72,000 is eligible for free software that will prepare both federal and (in some cases) state taxes, with none of the limitations seen in the more commonly advertised free options. These services are provided by the same companies, and work exactly like their other services.
The most direct way to take advantage of this free service is to use the list of links provided by the IRS. Nine different companies offer options for free filing under the IRS program, and although specific eligibility for each company varies, anyone making under $72,000 AGI should be eligible for at least one of the companies listed. Keep in mind that AGI is your income after deductions (things like student loan interest and contributions to a health savings account), so you may be eligible for the program despite having an official salary of more than $72,000. However there is no increased limit for joint filings, so couples who file with a single return are less likely to be eligible. For those who earn too much to be eligible for the program, the IRS offers Free File Fillable Forms, though these come with various limitations and mostly require you to calculate everything yourself.
While the Free File program is touted as being widely available, the reality is that very few people actually know about it! This isn’t much of a surprise when you consider that the IRS has no budget to advertise the program, largely because tax prep companies lobby against it. In addition, multiple tax prep companies were caught deliberately hiding their Free File Program services, putting no links to the program on their own websites and even going as far as to prevent them from showing up on search engine results. Last year, the IRS modified the Free File Program to prevent some of these tactics. They have also eliminated the restriction that prevented the IRS from developing their own software, although there has been no report of the IRS actually working to create their own service.
Due to these changes and the related publicity, the number of people using the Free File Program increased to 4 million in 2020, up from approximately 2.5 million in prior years. Despite the increase, that is still less than 3 percent of all individual tax returns filed last year. And while some portion of people may be getting free returns through different services, it is likely that the vast majority of people are paying for tax preparation that they could be receiving for free. Although $30 for a simple federal return may not seem like a high price, especially when the company offers to take it out of your refund, these fees add up to billions of dollars that could be kept in savings accounts or spent in other sectors of the economy.
With the pandemic bringing economic hardship across the United States, there is no better year to stop paying for something you can get for free. Follow this link, and find an offer that matches your criteria. Keep in mind that since the program refers to AGI, you may be eligible even if you think your salary is too high. Also, make sure to choose a company that provides a free state return as well, for whichever state you are filing, as each service may differ in which states are eligible. For Maryland tax returns, you may want to focus on the services offered by OLT, TurboTax, and TaxAct.
Finally, even if you aren’t able to take advantage of the program yourself, spread the word! Since the government is not advertising the program, and tax companies have no desire or incentive to do so, it’s up to all of us to save money for our friends and family. And if tax filing is free, maybe we’ll have an incentive to complete our taxes early and avoid rushing at the deadline.