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6 ways to prepare and e-file your federal taxes for free

Tax Day is almost here and you've decided you need help filing your return.

Even at this late date you might be able to get some assistance with your taxes. Even better, it could be free.

Today's Daily Tax Tip looks at six ways you can prepare and e-file your taxes for free.

Free File promo1. Free File: Start with Free File, the partnership between the Internal Revenue Service and members of the commercial tax preparation and filing companies. For more than a decade, eligible taxpayers have been able to go to the IRS website, click on Free File and use name-brand software to prepare and e-file their returns for, as the name says, free.

The Free File program is open this filing season to taxpayers with a 2012 adjusted gross income of $57,000 or less. That income level applies to all filing statuses. So a single taxpayer making $56,500 and a married jointly filing couple with combined income at that same level all can use Free File.

So check out the options, keeping in mind that each participating company sets its own eligibility requirements and not all taxpayers will qualify for all companies. Individual company offers may be limited by AGI, geographic location, specific states and include other criteria. Review the choices carefully.

2. Free fillable forms: If you make too much money to qualify for Free File, you still might be able to use the site to prepare your return via free fillable forms.

This is Free File's electronic version of IRS paper forms most commonly used by taxpayers. The fillable forms option is a basic service, with no preparation software assistance.

You'll only get basic math computations and, if you have questions, you'll need to download the IRS instruction material to find the answers.

You also cannot use fillable forms if you must attach any statement to your tax filing. The IRS has a list of other fillable forms filing limitations.

Also note that the free fillable forms are for federal filing only. There are no state tax return options here. But most states that require residents file an income tax return do have their own free online filing programs, so check with your state tax department.

And if your federal tax situation isn't overly complicated and you're experienced in filling out your tax return, fillable forms it means that you don't have to pay for tax software to get electronic forms. Just open the fillable forms, enter your tax data and e-file for free.

3. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA): The VITA program generally offers free tax help to people who make $51,000 or less and need assistance preparing their tax returns. IRS-certified volunteers provide free basic income tax return preparation. Electronic filing also is available to qualified individuals.

VITA volunteers can walk you through tax-saving but often confusing credits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), the child tax credit and the credit for the elderly or disabled.

VITA sites are nationwide, typically in community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other convenient locations. Find one near you between January and the April 15 deadline by  using the VITA Locator Tool or calling 1-800-906-9887 (toll-free).

4. Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE): The TCE program offers free tax help to taxpayers age 60 or older. Like their VITA counterparts, TCE volunteers are IRS certified. They specialize in questions about pensions and retirement issues unique to seniors.

A majority of the TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation's Tax Aide Program and operate through April 15. To locate the nearest TCE site or AARP Tax-Aide, use the AARP Site Locator Tool or call toll-free 1-888-227-7669.

IRS-certified volunteers who provide tax counseling are often retired individuals associated with non-profit organizations that receive grants from the IRS.

VITA-TCE logoIf you go to a VITA or TCE site, be sure to bring:

  • Proof of identification/picture ID
  • Social Security Cards for you, your spouse and dependents or a Social Security Number verification letter issued by the Social Security Administration or
  • Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) assignment letter for you, your spouse and dependents
  • Proof of foreign status, if applying for an ITIN
  • Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents on the tax return
  • Wage and earning statement(s) Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R, 1099-Misc from all employers
  • Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099)
  • A copy of last year's federal and state returns if available
  • Proof of bank account routing numbers and account numbers for direct deposit, such as a blank check
  • Total paid for daycare provider and the daycare provider's tax identifying number (the provider's Social Security Number or the provider's business Employer Identification Number) if appropriate

Also, if you are married and filing a joint return, both spouses must be present at the VITA or TCE location to sign the required forms.

5. Walmart options: For the fifth year, the MyFreeTaxes is providing free state and federal tax preparation and filing assistance for qualified individuals. This filing season, the program is open to individuals or families who in 2012 had a combined income of less than $57,000.

MyFreeTaxes is a partnership of the Walmart Foundation, Goodwill Industries International, National Disability Institute and United Way Worldwide. H&R Block provides the tax preparation and filing software.

Qualifying taxpayers can use the program online or in-person at tax help centers. A search tool is available at MyFreeTaxes home page to find one near you.

6. Tax software deals: Every filing season, commercial tax preparation and filing companies offer their services free to some taxpayers.

Check those sites. can help speed up your search. The site has put together a listing of free or special tax preparation deals that popular tax software companies are offering this filing season.

Also check with your bank or brokerage. Each year, many partner with tax software providers to provide the financial institutions' customers with free or reduced cost tax preparation and e-filing.

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