This article is presented for informational purposes only. If you have tax questions please consult with a qualified tax professional.
It’s officially tax season! This is exciting if the government owes you money, stressful if you owe the government money, and generally agitating if you hate math or paperwork.
Tax preparation is big business representing $7.7 billion in revenue in 2015 alone. You have to file your taxes, but filing your taxes can be complicated. So when someone offers to help – especially when they drop the phrase “Maximum refund” repeatedly – it’s tempting.
But that help is rarely free. The cost of tax filing assistance will vary greatly depending on the product you use, your income, and how complicated the filing ends up being. Even products that claim to be free rarely are, often attempting to upsell you additional services throughout the process.
The question then becomes: Do you actually need to pay for tax preparation assistance?
You can always file for free
To start, it’s important to remember that there is no fee associated with actually filing your federal and state tax returns. Anyone can gather the necessary documents, then complete and file them on your own. You can download blank forms and additional instructions at IRS.gov. (Your local library may also carry a selection of tax forms if you aren’t able to download and print your own.) Once you’ve done all the math and completed all the required forms, you simply pop your returns into the mail and send them to the appropriate address. It’s a bit more work for you, but completely free.
Additionally, if your total annual income is below $62,000 you can file your federal return electronically for free. The IRS maintains a list of tax prep software options that offer free e-filing. Every version of tax prep software that offers free filing has its own set of criteria, so review each option to see which suits you best. It’s also important to remember that almost all of the “free” products available will offer additional benefits which are not free, including assistance filing your state income return.
The IRS also offers the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, which provides free assistance to tax payers with income below $54,000, those with disabilities, the elderly, and limited English speakers. Visit the Free Tax Prep site to search for volunteer locations near you.
How much help you do need?
The fees associated with filing your taxes are all preparation assistance fees – that is, you’re paying for help correctly completing and filing your paperwork. So the question then becomes, do you feel confident filing your taxes on your own?
The answer most likely depends on the complexity of your tax situation. For instance, if you are single, have no dependents, do not own a home, and have only a single source of income, your tax filing is going to be relatively straightforward. If you make more than $62,000, then paying the fee is more about the convenience of filing online than about needing professional guidance.
As life gets more complicated, however, so do your tax returns. Having children. Buying a home. Making money on the stock market. Losing money on the stock market. Accruing significant medical bills. Making sizable donations to charity. To put it mildly, our tax laws are complex. You may be eligible for deductions you’ve never heard of. And unfortunately, if you don’t have the aid and assistance of a good tax professional, you’re probably going to miss out.
This is where paying for professional assistance starts to make sense. Today’s tax prep software is designed to identify obvious deductions and make suggestions on which you should claim. If your tax situation is complex, but still relatively clear, then one of these online solutions may work for you. However, if your tax situation is exceedingly complex and more than a little muddy, you may benefit from a face-to-face meeting with a tax expert. A tax expert can be costly (assistance with 2014 returns were estimated to cost $273 per filer) but could potentially make an enormous difference, especially if your return is chosen for an audit.
Ultimately, the most important point is that you file your income tax returns correctly and on time. After that it comes down to personal consideration. Weigh the effort and potential stress of filing on your own against the cost of getting help. After all, it’s your money.