Historically, April is tax time. (We’ll hold briefly for boos.) But there’s a silver lining. Two, actually: most people don’t need to pay for special software to classify them. And if you’re lucky enough to be a Californian, your state and federal taxes probably aren’t due until October.
You can thank Winter Storm Onslaught for the delayed deadline. The Internal Revenue Service and Governor Gavin Newsom announced in March that for anyone who lives or works in the 51 counties affected by federal declarations of emergency and disaster, the the tax deadline is extended to October 16. This list of affected counties includes Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego.
Although taxes are not uniquely American, the way we manage them is. In most other countries, the government calculates how much you owe and tells you. Filing your taxes is simple and free. In the United States, a system fiercely protected by paid lobbyists forces taxpayers to do the math themselves, often with a paid intermediary guiding them through the process. The reason anyone would need a guide, of course, is that the process is extremely complex; a feature, not a bug, that keeps money flowing to companies that support these lobbyists.
About 20 years ago, the federal government considered creating an option that would allow most Americans to file their taxes electronically for free and easily. THE private sector pushed backand a compromise was born: The Free File Alliance, a coalition of software companies that offer a free version of their tax software to Americans who meet certain criteria. To be a member of the Free File Alliance, companies must offer a free version of their software that can be used by 70% of taxpayers. Of course, other companies may also offer free tax software, and some do.
In the decades that followed, Intuit (the creators of TurboTax) and H&R Block have spent millions to maintain the status quo. At one time, Intuit offered a free version of its software, but made impossible to find on Google.
The Free File Alliance is not particularly well marketed, nor well used. Since 2018, only about 3% of eligible tax returns were filed through the Free File Alliance.
Here are several ways to file your taxes for free. (For accessibility, we’ve linked to all the options listed, plus a full link that you can copy and paste.)
Free file alliance: forms to fill out
The Free File Alliance, a public-private partnership with the Internal Revenue Service, offers two options for filing your taxes for free. The minimalist option, Forms to fill out for free, allows you to download all the forms and fill them out without help. The forms to fill out are for federal taxes only, not the states.
Free Files Alliance: FreeTaxUSA, TaxSlayer and others
If a total do-it-yourself job sounds daunting, the IRS has other options. A number of software vendors participate in the Free File Alliance. To qualify, you must have an adjusted gross income of $73,000 per year or less. (You can find your Adjusted Gross Income, or AGI, on your 1040 tax form.) Some options are completely free to qualified filers, and some will try to “sell” you a paid version of the software, based on your selections. Some offer state as well as federal filing, and some have certain additional restrictions on things like income, age, and state of residence.
Browse all File Alliance Free Options to find the option that best suits your situation. At the top of the page, you can enter your AGI, age, state, and answer a few other questions to see which options would be right for you.
Voluntary tax assistance or tax advice for the elderly
The IRS runs two programs in addition to Free File that help some taxpayers file. One is Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, or VITA. VITA provides free tax assistance to qualified taxpayers, including people who typically earn $60,000 or less, who have a disability or limited English skills.
Tax advice for the elderly, or TCE, provides assistance to taxfilers age 60 or older. Most VITA and TCE sites are staffed by volunteers.
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Cash Application Taxes
Cash App mobile payment platform acquired credit karma tax in 2020. It is now called Cash Application Taxes.
(Credit Karma was purchased by Intuit, the creators of TurboTax, in 2020. The old landing page for Credit Karma Taxes now invites users to file with TurboTax.)
You need to download Cash App on your smartphone and create a free account or login to your existing account to start using Cash App Taxes. Although you have to start the process with your phone, you can file your tax return on a computer or on your smartphone. There is no income limit for cash application taxes, and you can file federal as well as California state taxes here.
Free versions of H&R Block or TurboTax
Although lobbying the biggest players in the industry is the raison d’être of the Free File Alliance, neither H&R block nor Intuit (the makers of TurboTax and Jackson Hewitt tax software) participate in the IRS program starting with the 2022 tax year. But they both offer versions of their software that start at $0 for simple filings. There are, of course, several paid upgrades on offer.
Cal File for State Taxes
California offers its own free state tax software called Calibration file. You must meet certain income criteria, and certain sources of income, deductions, or write-offs will make you ineligible. Here is a complete list of Cal file qualifications.
Fun fact: California has already started a pilot program that created a no-return return for middle- and low-income taxpayers — so, a version of how people pay their taxes in almost every other country. ReadyReturn was a huge success. Tax software publishers persuaded the IRS to kill him.
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