The following is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as tax or legal advice.
You may have already seen the headlines or heard from friends — some people are getting smaller refunds this year. It could be too late to change your tax situation. But, you may be able to avoid spending extra money to prepare and file your return. Across the country, trained volunteers are ready to help you prepare and file your tax return for free through the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program.
What is VITA?
Founded in 1971, the VITA program offers free tax preparation and filing for low- and medium-income households. As of 2019, the household income limit is $55,000. VITA services are also available to people with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speakers (there may be translators on site or phone-based translation services available).
The volunteers can’t handle every tax situation, even if you’re within the income limit. For example, if you take money out of a 529 college saving account, but don’t use the money for educational expenses, a VITA site volunteer won’t be able to complete your form. Also, non-military VITA volunteers might not be able to prepare a return if you have income from a rental property.
Here’s an overview of the forms and situations that may be out of scope for volunteers. You could also contact your local site to ask about your situation.
Special options for military members and seniors
Military members, their spouses, and dependents may be able eligible for free tax preparation and filing services through the VITA program regardless of their income, and there are VITA sites on military installations. The military program is run by the Armed Forces Taxes Council and staffed by VITA members who receive special training for dealing with military-related tax issues, such as combat pay.
Seniors may have additional options as well. The Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), another IRS initiative, is open to all taxpayers, but specializes in helping filers who are 60 and may have pensions or other retirement-related tax issues.
There’s also the AARP’s Tax-Aide program, which has over 5,000 locations across the country and offers free tax preparation with a focus on taxpayers who are 50 or older. It’s open to non-AARP members, and there’s no income requirement.
How to find a site and prepare for your meeting
You can VITA, TCE, and AARP Tax-Aide sites in easy-to-access locations, such as community centers, libraries, schools, social services offices, and malls. To look up the nearest location, search one of the online directories:
You may need to make an appointment before showing up, although some locations also have walk-up appointments available. The exact forms and documents you’ll need to bring can vary depending on your tax situation, and they may include:
- Personal identification: Including a government-issued photo ID and your Social Security card or Individual Tax Identification Number card. Also, your Identity Protection PIN from the IRS, if you have one.
- Income documents: Be sure to bring copies of any forms you received, including income-related forms. These could include a W-2 (for wage income), 1099-MISC (for contractor or freelance income), 1099-INT (for interest income), SSA-1099 (for Social Security benefits), and 1099-R (for pension, annuity, or retirement account income).
- Payment records: If you made estimated federal or state income tax payments, bring a record of those payments.
- Health insurance forms: If you received a 1095-A, -B, or -C form, bring it to help verify you had health coverage for the year.
- Credit-related information: Some tax credits require you to bring a form, such as a 1098-T for educational expenses. Or, you may need to know the information even if there’s no form, such as a daycare provider’s name, address, telephone number, employer identification number or SSN.
- Deduction-related information: Similarly, some official forms go along with a deduction, such as the Form 1098 for mortgage interest payments. But other deductions, such as charitable contributions or business expenses, will depend on your records.
Also, bring a copy of last year’s tax return if you have one. Be aware that if you’re filing a married filing jointly return, your spouse may need to sign your tax return before it can be filed. However, military members who are away from home can give their spouse power of attorney, allowing the spouse to sign for both of you.
What to expect
Your experience at a free tax preparation site may vary depending on which site and option you choose.
- You can sit down with a trained volunteer to prepare and file your tax return in person.
- At some sites, there are kiosks set up where you can prepare and file your return on your own — but volunteers are nearby in case you have any questions.
- Additionally, some sites let you drop off your paperwork. You’ll need to come back once the preparer finishes your return and sign it before it can be submitted.
The time it takes to prepare and file a tax return will vary depending on how complicated your tax situation is and the volunteer’s experience. You may want to give yourself at least a half-hour to an hour for a simple return (if your only tax form is a single W-2, for example), to several hours if you have a small stack of forms.
Use a free DIY option
There are also free tax preparation software options available if you want to prepare and file your taxes for free, but don’t live near one of the programs’ sites or would prefer a DIY-route.
Through a partnership between the IRS and tax software companies, there are free versions of popular software available from the Free File Alliance.
As with VITA sites, there’s an income limit ($66,000 for 2019) to use the free software. However, that means over 100 million people, over 70 percent of all taxpayers, are eligible for the program.
You can choose from one of the software options and start the process on the IRS website. Note that the requirements can vary from one software provider to the next and that some companies will charge you to file a state tax return, while others also include that service for free.
Military members may have higher income limits for using software through the Free File program. Or, they can use the free MilTax software, which is designed with military taxpayers in mind.
Keep more of your money
For many households, a tax return is one of the largest windfall gains of the year. The money can be important for paying down debts, investing in a much-need home or vehicle repairs, or providing an opportunity to build savings. Regardless of whether your return increased or decreased compared to last year, using a free tax preparation service or software could help keep your money in your pocket.
Article written by Louis DeNicola. Louis is a personal finance writer with a passion for sharing advice on credit and how to save money.