Paying taxes is painful enough. Figuring out how much you owe can only add to your misery.
But filing your income taxes doesn’t have to be excruciating – or costly. Tax software can take a lot of the uncertainty out of a tax system that can be far too complex and intimidating for taxpayers with fairly run-of-the-mill finances.
Tax software walks you through an interview process that gathers your financial information and determines what forms need to be filled out and how to do it, what tax breaks you qualify for, and what taxes you have to pay.
Even better, it’s possible for most taxpayers to use free software to calculate and file their federal income tax returns.
New York residents who purchase tax software also are able to file their state tax returns electronically at no additional charge through the state’s e-file program.
But the state free file program is more limited, typically requiring income less than $57,000.
“It really can be terrific for people who qualify for it,” said Cary Ziter, a spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance, who said about half of all New York taxpayers can file their state and federal returns at no cost.
Many middle- and upper-income taxpayers still will have to purchase state tax preparation software, although state law prohibits tax software providers from charging extra for electronic filing. That provision stems from the requirement that took effect a year ago mandating that residents who use software to prepare their income tax returns file those returns electronically.
With tax season getting into full swing, here’s a look at some MoneySmart ways to prepare your own taxes.
• TaxAct Online: TaxAct is a bargain hunter’s dream. The software provider Second Story Software offers a free online version of its tax software for federal income taxes that includes free electronic filing.
No income limits. No residency rules. Free. It doesn’t get any cheaper than that.
The software is fairly simple to use, although the free version lacks some of the extras that come with the “deluxe” versions of the software that users have to purchase, including a feature that lets you import your basic information from your previous year’s return.
Adding a state return costs $14.95.
• The IRS Free File program: The Free File Alliance, a coalition of 15 tax software providers, lets taxpayers file their returns for free using their online tax preparation software, provided they meet certain income and eligibility requirements. About 70 percent of the nation’s taxpayers are expected to qualify for the free file program this year, said Tim Hugo, the executive director of the Free File Alliance.
This year, taxpayers with 2012 adjusted gross incomes of $57,000 or less – about 100 million Americans in all – qualify for the free file program, which is available at www.irs.gov/freefile.
“The service is unique because it gives taxpayers access to 15 different tax software offerings,” Hugo said. “They can choose the one that works best for their tax situation.”
All of the most prominent tax software providers participate in the free file program, including TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct and TaxSlayer.
To take advantage of the free file programs, including the state e-file program, taxpayers must access the software through the state Department of Taxation and Finance website, www.tax.ny.gov/pit/efile/freefile.
“You need to file through the state website,” Ziter said. “Both the federal and the state returns can be filed at the same time.”
Taxpayers who don’t need or want to use tax software can file their federal returns for free electronically by using fillable tax forms that are available on the IRS free file site.
• Free tax filing services: The IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) programs offer free, in-person tax filing help for qualifying taxpayers.
The VITA program is open to taxpayers earning $51,000 or less and is manned by IRS-certified volunteers who will help taxpayers prepare their returns and file them electronically. It is offered at regular times at a dozen sites in the Buffalo Niagara region. To find a location, visit the IRS website.
But that listing is far from complete. Other VITA sites are not listed, including a VITA tax preparation program offered on the Niagara University campus, 5795 Lewiston Road, Lewiston, and at the Doris W. Jones Family Resource Building, 3001 Ninth St., Niagara Falls. The sessions are offered from 5:45 to 7:30 p.m. in Room 207 of St. Vincent’s Hall on the NU campus on Tuesday, Thursday and Feb. 26 and 28; March 12, 14, 19, 21 and 26; and April 2 and 4. Sessions also are offered from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. in the Jones Family Resource Building on Wednesday and Feb. 27, and March 13, 20 and 27.
The TCE program, which is open for taxpayers who are at least 60 years old, is available at 18 sites across the Buffalo Niagara region, including several libraries and senior centers, through the AARP Foundation’s Tax Aide program. A list of sites is available through the AARP website at www.aarp.org.
The volunteers also are trained to be on the lookout for taxpayers who are eligible to claim the earned income tax credit, a potentially lucrative tax benefit that often goes unclaimed, Ziter said.
“The volunteers at the VITA sites are IRS-certified, but they’re also savvy in New York State taxes,” he said.