So, where's that super simple DIY tax form?
March 1, 2020 3:24 PM   Subscribe

I've heard repeated for several years that major accountancy companies have deliberately lobbied the US government to keep the income tax process as obscure and opaque as possible, for their own benefit. I've also been told that people can file their own taxes via a pretty simple form that is, by design, hard to locate. So where is it?

I'm a single NY resident, who'll be filing singly and 99% certainly taking the standard deduction. Normally I bring my documents to an accountant -- not a strip mall, H&R Block, national advertised chain, but a local business of accountants who also do my parents' taxes. They charge me about between $125-$250 and my refund from both state and federal has, so far, always been more than double that amount.

Am I being snookered? Is there some better benefit or time save by doing it myself? And of there is, can this deliberately obscured, easy way to do taxes be found anywhere online? I've done my searching of the IRS website, but the SEO seems to keep leading me back to TurboTax and other sites that want to sell me something. Where's the link to do it for actually free?
posted by The Pluto Gangsta to Work & Money (29 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Free Tax USA
posted by minsies at 3:29 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]

IRS free file?
posted by btfreek at 3:29 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]

>Is there some better benefit or time save by doing it myself?

If your tax situation is simple (and it sounds like this is the case for you), then I don't see any reason why you should pay someone upwards of $250 to do your return for you.
posted by alex1965 at 3:42 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]

About Form 1040

You can just fill it out and mail it in if you want.

(Note that the “short forms”, 1040A and 1040EZ, were discontinued after 2017.)
posted by Huffy Puffy at 3:44 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

If you are an old and not a business owner/super rich, "doing your taxes" was just what you did up until fairly recently. You used to be able to get the paper forms at libraries at least until about 2005 or so. If you have one or two W2s, it's very straightforward. Read the directions carefully.

I always print out two copies and fill one out as a scratch copy beforehand. My father does his in pencil and then inks over them. You can have the directions up on your screen while you work on the paper forms.

If you are not taking deductions, are not a contractor, do not own a business and do not have a lot of asset sales (like lots of stock sales; a house sale is manageable) you can absolutely do your own. Mine take about an hour for state and federal as long as I've got all the forms and W2s and so on together already.
posted by Frowner at 4:36 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]

To file for free online, your income needs to be a smidge under $70K this year. No charge for paper filing, but your refund will arrive more slowly. Slightly puzzled as to the perplexity as to where the form is; it's right here, where you'd expect it to be.

If your situation is simple and you don't want to go it alone completely, the big tax companies will charge you about a fifth to a tenth of what your accountant is charging you. If you prefer to give the money to the accountant, that's one thing, but you are probably overpaying.
posted by praemunire at 4:47 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]

Um. The IRS has all tax forms online. You can fill them out, print them off, and mail them in. It is free and very easy, honestly, even if your situation is somewhat complicated. The hardest part is gathering together all your receipts and w-2s and 1099s and so on, and you have to do that for your accountant anyway. The form you start with is the 1040. The instructions will tell you what other forms you need. There used to be a 1040EZ, which was indeed easy if you qualified to use it. But everyone uses 1040 now, pretty much. (Senior citizens may use 1040 SR.)
posted by shadygrove at 5:10 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]

If you make too much money to use IRs Free File, you can still print out the forms and instructions and do it yourself by hand and mail it in like the olden days. I did it last year because I was tired of paying Turbotax and it wasn’t hard.
posted by something something at 5:11 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I've always found the free forms really slow and frustrating, but I also itemize deductions and whatnot.

Amazon is running a sale this weekend on HR Block's software, $14.99 for Federal Basic and $17.50 for Federal Deluxe (if you itemize deductions or have investments). It includes electronic filing and I can knock the entire thing out in under an hour.

My time is worth more than $17/hr so it's free as far as I'm concerned.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:13 PM on March 1

For all those mentioning paper vs electronic, you can still fill out the forms electronically, they are basically pdfs with blank boxes to enter your info, then just print it out and mail it in. You don’t have to hand-write everything. Last time I did it, it even did the math for you.
posted by sillysally at 5:25 PM on March 1 [5 favorites]

Seconding sillysally - it is a little unclear on the IRS website,but it's the "free file fillable forms" option.
posted by soundguy99 at 5:54 PM on March 1

I've also been told that people can file their own taxes via a pretty simple form that is, by design, hard to locate.

Yes, until recently many companies hid their free filiing software. But the IRS revised their rules: "Now companies are barred from hiding their free products from search engines such as Google, and a years-old prohibition on the IRS creating its own online filing system has been scrapped."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:28 PM on March 1 [2 favorites]

So here, for example, is TurboTax's free edition. They used to hide it, but now it is the first result if you google for turbotax free file.
posted by rockindata at 6:49 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I would suggest completing your taxes online if you're doing it by yourself for the first time. Benefits?
-They hold your hand, walking you through each step with explanations.
-Many are free if you make less than $69,000 a year. I used H&R Block and I didn't have to pay anything for Federal and State. They did try upselling me numerous times though. I just declined the upsell everytime.
-My employer participated in some program where my W-2 Data was already imported. I didn't have to hand enter my W-2. Some services let you take a picture of your W-2. I'm not sure if that part is free.
-My Federal and State Returns were accepted within 20 Minutes of filing.

Reasons not to do your own taxes?
-You find taxes or numbers very intimidating. Sometimes the peace of mind is worth the money to have someone else help you. Taxes/Numbers can intimidate even highly educated people.
-You make many errors when hand entering numbers. This can be helped if your employer has your W-2 Data already imported or you take a picture of the W-2.
-Your situation is very complex.
posted by mundo at 7:01 PM on March 1 [1 favorite]

I also live in New York and have a very simple tax situation (filing single, live in the same state I work in, one job/W-2, standard deduction, no dependents, very few credits, no house, etc.)

My situation is simple enough that even though I don't qualify for the IRS Free File program, I can still use HR Block's Free Online, which can be used by anyone who has a simple enough tax situation. They will try to upsell several times as you're going through it, e.g. proposing that you upgrade so they keep your tax returns on file, but I have never upgraded.

I have used this same program for 5 years now and haven't paid a single dollar and don't have any complaints. It sounds like your tax situation is similar to mine, so it's worth checking out.
posted by andrewesque at 7:03 PM on March 1 [3 favorites]

I've been pretty happy e-filing, for free, with Credit Karma the last couple years:
posted by glonous keming at 7:23 PM on March 1 [4 favorites]

I think the "deliberately hard to locate" refers to the fact that TurboTax and HR Block both have a free version that is NOT THE SAME as the Free File version provided through the IRS.

TurboTax Free Edition/HR Block Free Online are limited versions of the software available for very simple tax situations at any income level. If you have anything more complicated than a W2 (owning a home or business, investment income, contractor or self-employed), you need to pay for one of the premium versions to get access to the additional forms.

Free File is an IRS-sponsored version of the FULL TurboTax/HR Block (and other) software packages that includes all of the forms for any level of complexity. It is free for anyone with an AGI below $69k, no matter how complicated, and you can access all the different software options through the IRS Free File page that others have mentioned.
These are the forms supported by HR Block Free Online.
These are the forms supported by IRS Free File "delivered by HR Block".

The actual process of doing your taxes is pretty much the same in both cases. Check the version you are using carefully, don't give those bastards any more money than you absolutely have to.
posted by yeahlikethat at 9:50 PM on March 1 [6 favorites]

I agree, it can be confusing! For the last few years, I had been using the small business version of TurboTax, directly from the TurboTax website. As others have started above, this is not the free version! For the actual free file versions, go directly through the IRS website. I completed my taxes the other day using the IRS free version of TurboTax and paid nothing to file both federal and state taxes. Good luck!
posted by sucre at 7:00 AM on March 2

Just a note in case you don't qualify for IRS Free File: I used eFile this year after years on TurboTax. It was much simpler, more transparent, and cheaper.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on March 2

Seconding Credit Karma. It is free for everyone, no matter how much money you made or how complicated your situation, and includes state tax filing, too.

Of course, they were just bought by Intuit, makers of TurboTax, so my prediction is that this will be the last year Credit Karma will offer tax filing for free.
posted by kindall at 10:48 AM on March 2 [1 favorite]

If you are not itemizing, the tax service is not helping you get a larger refund in any meaningful way. They can be valuable in finding more things to deduct for people who are itemizing, but fewer people are itemizing these days.
posted by soelo at 11:12 AM on March 2

A service helps if you have to file schedules.
posted by Miko at 12:02 PM on March 2

There are several online services that the IRS contracts with that lets you efile your federal taxes. Your eligibility varies greatly, depending on your income level and your state of residence.

If your income is only from paid employment, any of those should be suitable, provided you qualify based on your income.

Notably, credit karma offers free online tax filing regardless of your income level although using their tax service permits them to send you information about their other products (more details in their privacy policy).

Freefillableforms enables you to efile your federal taxes (and only your federal taxes) for free regardless of your income level.

A full user guide is available from the IRS although you may not need it.

The name sounds sketchy but it is directly linked to on the website.

Depending on your level of comfort with tax laws, freefillableforms may not super simple, but it is a free, online DIY tax form.
posted by fizzix at 2:18 PM on March 2 [1 favorite]

Freefillable forms is quite straightforward.

My partner and I (filing separately) use, which also lets you file federal for free regardless of income, and you can add on your state taxes for $9.95.

Unless you are wealthy, have multiple sources of income, run a business, or are involved in real estate, filing your own taxes is pretty painless.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:03 PM on March 2

people can file their own taxes via a pretty simple form that is, by design, hard to locate. So where is it?

Everyone has to file a 1040, as noted above - no more 1040EZ or 1040A, and certainly there's no secret but easier to use form. Seniors can now use the new 1040SR but the difference there is the purpose of the 1040SR is it's an easier-to-read form.

but fewer people are itemizing these days

Note that this is because of the tax law change, the itemized deduction's much higher now. And now you can't deduct state taxes. Since the threshold's higher, the write-off from your mortgage interest, donations, etc may not be enough to matter, you'll be taking the standard deduction anyway. Makes things simpler, actually.
posted by Rash at 8:41 PM on March 2

And now you can't deduct state taxes.
When you itemize, the State and Local taxes you can deduct are capped at $10K for both single and married filers.
posted by soelo at 7:34 AM on March 3

I think the "deliberately hard to locate" refers to...

ProPublica has published a ton of investigatory content over the years about scams by tax software houses to lobby against free programs, hide their IRS-mandated free versions and steer free-eligible customers into paying.

Here's a recent investigation of the current state of things

And a guide to actually getting to the free programs if you're eligible
posted by spbmp at 6:51 PM on March 3 [1 favorite]

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