how to do taxes online

A 2019 individual income tax return form due on April 15, 2020.
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The IRS is now accepting 2019 tax returns, which are due by April 15, 2020. As usual, most Americans are eligible to file for free through the IRS Free File Program—and, as usual, most Americans don’t know this.

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Incomes Below $69,000: IRS Free File Program

TurboTax's IRS Free File Program website.

If your adjusted gross income for 2019 was $69,000 or less, you’re eligible for the IRS Free File Program. This program is a partnership between the IRS and the commercial tax software companies that make applications like TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, FreeTaxUSA, and Tax Slayer. Under some situations, these companies let you use their software for free.

Here’s the critical thing to understand: The free tax-filing software available through the IRS Free File Program is different from each tax-filing program’s standard free edition! In other words, TurboTax’s Free File Program edition and TurboTax’s Free Edition are different. If you’re eligible for the Free File Program and you start a tax return through Free File, you can use all the features you want, and you won’t see any upsells asking you to spend money. If you start with something like TurboTax Free Edition—which isn’t the Free File Program—you will have to pay extra for specific forms and other tax situations. With IRS Free File, you can use all the forms and complicated features of the tax software all you want.

To get started, head to the IRS Free File website and look through the offers. Different applications have different requirements for their offers. For example:

  • H&R Block lets you file a free federal return if your income is $69,000 or less, and your age is between 17 and 51. If you qualify for a free federal return, you also get a free state return.
  • TurboTax lets you file a free federal return if your income is $36,000 or less, no matter your age. You also get a free state return if you qualify for a free federal one.

Feel free to look through the offers on the IRS’s website. The IRS also offers a tool that will ask about your situation and recommend only matching offers. Based on our experiences, we’d choose TurboTax if you’re eligible for that and H&R Block if you’re not. Both are easy-to-use, well-reviewed tax applications.

Note: To take advantage of the IRS Free File offer, you must start your return by clicking from the IRS Free File page or via the “IRS Free File Program delivered by [Tax Software Name]” page on the tax software’s website.

People who aren’t aware of how the IRS Free File Program works end up using the more limited “free” versions of applications like TurboTax and often have to spend money when they’d be eligible for IRS Free File. Thankfully, in 2020, the IRS made some reforms for this tax filing season. The IRS no longer lets tax software companies hide their IRS Free File pages from search engines like Google.

Anyone: Credit Karma Tax

Credit Karma Tax's pitch.

If you aren’t eligible for the IRS Free File Program, you can still do your taxes online for free.

Credit Karma offers free tax-filing software with no upsells. You can’t even pay for an upgrade—Credit Karma Tax is completely free. Like with Credit Karma’s free credit score monitoring service, Credit Karma Tax makes money by showing you offers for financial products like credit cards and loans based on your financial situations. It includes both federal and state filing—all free.

If you don’t have to file a state return, you might also look at FreeTaxUSA. It lets you file a federal return for free, but requires payment for a state return.

Note that Credit Karma Tax doesn’t support more complicated situations like part-year state returns, multiple state returns, and nonresident state returns. It also doesn’t support forms like Form 1116 for the Foreign Tax Credit and Schedule K-1 for Estate and Trust income. Be sure to read the list of forms and situations Credit Karma doesn’t support before you choose to use it.

In 2020, Credit Karma’s tax software has been around for a few years, but it’s still new compared to its competitors. To double-check Credit Karma’s work, you might want to run your numbers through a paid software product like TurboTax before filing with Credit Karma. You can double-check Credit Karma’s work with TurboTax without paying anything, as you only pay TurboTax when you file. If TurboTax and Credit Karma Tax’s numbers match, you can have confidence in Credit Karma Tax’s numbers.

RELATED: How to View (and Monitor) Your Credit Report For Free

Incomes Above $69,000: Free Fillable Forms

The Free Fillable Tax Forms website operated by the IRS.

The IRS also offers Free Fillable Forms, which everyone can use without any income limit. These are basically just electronic copies of the IRS’s normal paper tax forms. They’ll do some math for you, but that’s it. Don’t expect the user-friendly interview process found in commercial tax software applications.

These fillable forms might sound intimidating, but they’re still easier than paper forms. When you’re done with the forms, you can e-file right from the forms website without printing and mailing anything.

The IRS only offers federal tax forms, so you’re on your own when it comes to your state taxes. Your state may provide free fillable forms on its website if it requires that you file a state tax return, but that’s up to your state tax agency.

Certain fillable forms have some limitations, so you may have to file a paper return (or buy tax software) to do some more complicated things. Be sure to consult the list of available forms and limitations on the IRS’s website before beginning.

The IRS’s Free Fillable Forms will be most convenient for people who have simple tax situations. If you just need to file a basic return, they should be pretty straightforward. If you’re familiar with the tax forms, these Free Fillable Forms should also be faster than filling them out by hand. You won’t have to mail anything, either.

What’s Changed in 2020?

This article is pretty similar to our look at filing your 2018 taxes online for free in 2019. That’s because not a lot has changed. The IRS Free File Program still exists, Credit Karma is the only tax software that offers free federal and state returns to everyone, and the IRS still offers Free Fillable Forms for people whose incomes make them ineligible for the Free File Program.

This year, the Free File Program income limit has been raised a bit: It’s now $69,000 rather than $66,000. The IRS says it hopes that changes to the Free File Program should also make it easier for more Americans to find and take advantage of the Free File software.

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