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9 Ways to Get Free Tax Help From a Human Being
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Tax help can cost a lot of money. Pros charge $150 an hour on average to do a federal and state return, according to the National Society of Accountants. Help with planning, back taxes or audits can cost even more. But there are a few ways to get human tax help for free.
1. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA)
What it is: A federal grant program that helps community organizations provide free tax-prep services to low- and moderate-income individuals, the disabled, the elderly and limited-English speakers.
How it works: Taxpayers can get face-to-face help from local, IRS-certified volunteers. Generally, the income limit is $54,000. Volunteers won’t prepare the Schedule C (sorry, freelancers), the complex Schedule D (sorry, investors) or forms associated with nondeductible IRA contributions, investment income for minors, premium tax credits, requests for Social Security numbers or determinations of worker status.
“In a lot of communities, [people] can just dial 211 to find out information about the nearest VITA site and get more information about whether or not they qualify,” says Rebecca Thompson, project director of the taxpayer opportunity network at the Corporation for Enterprise Development, which focuses on fighting poverty.
2. Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)
What it is: A federal grant program that gives money to community organizations to provide people with free tax help. Although the program was established to help people 60 and older, and still prioritizes serving them, there’s actually no minimum age requirement. Trained volunteers provide the assistance.
How it works: Similar to VITA, community organizations and nonprofits use the grant money to provide help. Most TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation’s Tax-Aide program.
“The TCE program and the VITA program use, as a base, the same training program [for volunteers]. They use the same certification test and, for the most part, the same software,” says Fran Rosebush, deputy director of the Corporation for Enterprise Development.
3. AARP Tax Foundation
What it is: A nonprofit arm of AARP that operates the Tax-Aide network of tax preparation sites for the IRS’s VITA and TCE programs.
How it works: AARP’s Tax-Aide connects taxpayers with tax counselors who have advanced IRS training. It also operates an online FAQ page where you can submit tax questions to IRS-certified volunteers. You don t need to be an AARP member to get help.
4. IRS Taxpayer Advocate Service
What it is: An independent organization within the IRS that protects taxpayer rights.
How it works: You can turn to the Taxpayer Advocate Service if you’ve already tried to resolve your tax problem through normal IRS channels or you think an IRS process isn’t working the way it should. There’s at least one Taxpayer Advocate office in every state.
5. Low Income Taxpayer Clinics (LITCs)
What it is: A federal grant program that gives money to legal-aid and legal-services organizations to help low-income taxpayers or taxpayers who speak English as a second language. Law schools and business schools also are common providers. Some charge nominal fees.
“We don t prepare tax returns, generally speaking, but if somebody, for example, has their refund frozen and they need help figuring out why, they can call low-income tax clinics,” says Christine Speidel, an attorney at Vermont Legal Aid, which runs clinics in the state.
How it works: The program generally provides representation for people in IRS disputes, including audits, appeals, collections and litigation. It also can help respond to IRS notices and fix account problems. Typically, the income ceiling is 250% of the federal poverty rate, but some programs have a little wiggle room, Speidel says. Sole proprietors are usually welcome, she adds.
6. IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers
What it is: Local IRS offices across the country.
How it works: Services vary by office but can include basic tax-law assistance, payment arrangements, procedural inquiries, help with IRS letters and notices and other support. You’ll need to schedule an appointment and provide a valid photo ID and taxpayer identification number, such as your Social Security number.
7. Military OneSource
What it is: A Department of Defense program that provides financial and legal resources, among other things, to military members and their families. The tax program is called MilTax.
How it works: Trained MilTax consultants are available by phone seven days a week during tax season from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. ET at 1-800-342-9647. After April 18, they’ll be available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET. MilTax is part of the VITA program, which means you also can get face-to-face help on base or nearby.
8. The tax pro down the street
What it is: A certified public accountant, licensed attorney, enrolled agent or someone who has completed the IRS’ Annual Filing Season program. The IRS also requires anyone who prepares or helps prepare federal tax returns for compensation to have a Preparer Tax Identification Number, so be sure to look for that.
How it works: To get free help, all you might need to do is ask. According to the National Society of Accountants, 89% of tax pros offer free client consultations worth more than $100.
9. Your tax software
What it is: Many versions of do-it-yourself tax software come with free help from a tax pro via phone, chat, email or even face-to-face via your cell phone’s camera.
How it works: Tax software providers frequently offer free help, though it’s more common among the higher-end paid versions. Audit support and audit representation are often provided, though you might have to pay extra.
Where to find: Companies such as TurboTax, H R Block, TaxAct and TaxSlayer offer free help for all or some of their tax software packages .