Here’s Where To File Your Taxes for Free—for Real

The IRS ‘Free File’ Program Is Underused Amid Lots of Confusion

Worries parents doing home finances in the living room. Children sitting in the background.
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DjelicS

If you haven’t filed your federal tax return yet (or have, but wonder if you’ve overpaid), it’s worth checking if you’re eligible for a free online tax prep service.

In fact, there are a number of free options for people making under certain incomes, but many people don’t realize they exist or get them confused with other options that may or may not be free. (And TurboTax is only making it worse with a misleading ad campaign, according to a lawsuit the Federal Trade Commission filed last week.) Here’s what you need to know in simple terms.

Key Takeaways

  • The IRS Free File program allows taxpayers a number of options for filing income tax returns for free if their adjusted gross income is less than $73,000.
  • If you didn’t know about the free options, you’re not alone. Millions are estimated to have paid for tax help they could have gotten for free. 
  • A new government lawsuit against the makers of TurboTax software highlights why it’s so easy to get confused.
  • The deadline to file your federal tax return is April 18.

If you go to the IRS webpage linked here, you’ll see eight free online tax prep options for those who qualify. Make sure to go to the webpage first, though, so that you can be referred to one of the IRS Free File program’s partner websites there. If you start somewhere else, including the portion of a partner website not affiliated with the Free File program, you may very well be charged, potentially for the same service.

If your adjusted gross income is $73,000 or less (and your AGI may be lower than what you think of as your income), you’re likely to qualify for most of the eight options and be eligible to avoid a fee often in the neighborhood of $20-$95. Some have a lower cap or minimum for income, and some don’t work if you live in certain states or are older than a certain age. If you qualify for the free federal filing, some partners will let you avoid a charge for your state filing as well. The details of each option are laid out side by side.

It’s worth noting that if your adjusted gross income is over $73,000, you can still use the IRS’s fillable forms to file electronically for free, but you’ll be on your own, essentially—without tax preparation guidance and only limited help with calculations. The deadline to file is April 18.

If this all comes as a surprise, you’re not alone. The Free File program, a public-private partnership started in 2003, is underused because of lack of awareness and confusion, according to government data. For the 2019 tax year, only 2.5 million of 104 million people who could have used the program actually did, and the government estimates more than 14 million ended up paying a fee for filing. The lawsuit against the makers of TurboTax software, which is no longer part of the Free File program, highlights how misunderstood things have gotten.

“The Federal Trade Commission has fired a warning shot across the bows of all the tax revenue industry,” said Ed Mierzwinski, senior director of the federal consumer group at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer advocate. “It's time for you to start telling the truth to Americans that there are other ways to pay their taxes.”

The FTC’s lawsuit against TurboTax parent Intuit accused the company of deceiving prospective customers into thinking they could use the software for free, even though many would ultimately be asked to pay—$59-$119, depending on the sophistication of the paid version—usually after an investment of time and energy. In 2020, for instance, about two-thirds of all U.S. taxpayers weren’t eligible for the truly free service, the suit said.  

“We are asking a court to immediately halt this bait-and-switch, and to protect taxpayers at the peak of filing season,” Samuel Levine, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement.

The FTC also suggested that Intuit’s role as an IRS Free File partner, a role it had until it dropped out in 2021, was at odds with its regular commercial business and that the company deliberately made it harder for people to use the Free File version and purposely instilled confusion about the two. In fact, the FTC suggests Intuit only participated to prevent the IRS from offering its own free tax filing software to taxpayers.

Intuit, which will challenge the suit, said the FTC's arguments aren’t credible. Its most recent free advertising campaign only accelerated the use of the free TurboTax offerings, the company said, driving the number of free filers up to 17 million in 2021, from 11 million in 2018.

“Far from steering taxpayers away from free tax preparation offerings, our free advertising campaigns have led to more Americans filing their taxes for free than ever before and have been central to raising awareness of free tax prep,” Kerry McLean, general counsel of Intuit, said in a statement.

To set the record straight, TurboTax’s Free Edition lets you file a tax return for free, just like the ubiquitous commercials say, but only if you are filing a simple return. That is, only if you are using a simple 1040 form that doesn’t require attaching schedules (forms) for things like unemployment income, income from freelancing, or itemized deductions. In contrast, many Free File partners will process a number of forms. Here’s a list

Have a question, comment, or story to share? You can reach Diccon at dhyatt@thebalance.com.

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