A lot of families cannot afford to pay for professional help to get advice on taxes and/or to prepare their tax returns. While simple returns for low income earners can be filed for free with most large online e-File tax providers, those who have complicated financial situations or have moved states during the year can find themselves struggling to fill in their tax returns resulting in them submitting incorrect returns or even missing out on valuable tax credits and deductions they are entitled to.
The average professional tax preparation fee for a basic federal return can go up to $500 and when you add in state returns and other specialized tax forms the cost to prepare and file can easily be in excess of $1,000. So finding some free or very low cost help can be important to lots of people.
But luckily there are a lot of non-profit, online and tax advocacy groups that can help families who are unable to afford a professional tax preparer. This includes:
1. Online Tax Filing Providers (H&R Block and TurboTax) – These national tax providers offer free filing options for lower income folks, but they also have a lot of free resources to help navigate through some complex tax questions. TurboTax has their online AnswerXchange where their staff or experts answer the most common tax questions. You’ll likely find an answer to one your questions there as they claim to answer “1500 questions every day.” It works on the principle of crowd sourcing so you can vote up good answers and also post your own questions.
Similar to TurboTax, H&R Block offers an online community to get answers to common tax questions. Though I think the TurboTax community site is much better. Off course don’t share any confidential data on these public exchanges and risk identity theft issues.
2. The IRS. Yes the Internal Revenue Service, offers free tax advice as well. Really. You can goto the IRS free tax return page or call a toll-free number (1-800-829-1040) during business hours and you’ll get on the phone with an IRS endorsed individual – under the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program – who can help you navigate through some complex tax questions. You can even get help with electronically filing your return if you make $53,000 or less, have disabilities. For the elderly, or those over 60, there is a Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) support program specializing in questions about retirement plans and pensions.
3. Online Blogs and Sites. Like this site there are literally thousands of blogs and websites offering free tax advice. But like they say, you get what you pay for. I try and answer the questions I get but as I am not a tax professional nor do I really have much of a financial insight into the people asking questions I am always hesitant to give a very detailed answer. Rather I prefer to give general advice and point them to an official source or recommend a professional for very complex questions. So when posting your question online, use it as part of your research for getting answers to common questions, but for unique or items specific to you I would only use the information you get from online blogs and sits as a starting point.
4. Tax Clinics. A number of churches, universities and other non-profit institutions run tax clinics that offer free tax advice and preparation help to lower income earners or community members. I recommend searching online for these in your local areas and you will be surprised to see how many are on offer. These tax clinics are staffed with experienced volunteers who are generally on the way to becoming or are already tax professionals. But beware of going with phony organizations that advertise a lot and offer “free services”, but really are only doing this to lure people in and then charge them just before filing.
5. Accountants and Law Firms. Last but not the least, lower income earners that run into big tax problems can sometimes call local accountants or tax lawyers to help them work through an IRS audit. A lot of professional tax and legal firms that have lawyers and accountants provide a certain number of “community or pro-bono hours” to help disadvantaged individuals and if you call them they can provide some really solid advice for no (or minimal) cost. Again, look in your area and make a call. No harm in trying. Talking about large firms, the AARP also provides free tax advice and preparation services for those 60 and older through their Tax-Aide Program, which claims to be the largest free, volunteer-run tax service.