I know, I know... you probably haven't even put away the holiday decorations yet or cleaned out the fridge of leftovers. But the fact remains that the turning of the calendar to a new year signifies the return of tax season.
I, for one, am not thrilled with the prospect of laboring over my personal finances each year, and I'm inclined to believe that most of you feel the same. In 2016, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) estimated that taxpayers spent 8.9 billion hours complying with federal tax laws. To put that into context, this works out to over 1 million years of cumulative time spent on federal income tax taxes. Yuck.
Furthermore, prior to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) being enacted, an average of 144,500 words per year had been added to the U.S. tax code since 1955. That's right, the full U.S. tax code was longer than 10 million words prior to the implementation of the TCJA. Really makes you want to be an accountant for the IRS, doesn't it?
The point is that doing your taxes stinks. But for a little more than 130 million Americans out there, I'm about to make your lives so much easier.
You see, quite a few people will wind up ponying up potentially hundreds of dollars to have a tax professional prepare their federal filing for them in 2020, or might opt to pay anywhere from $39 to well over $100 for tax preparation software that'll walk them through the process of entering data and searching for credits and deductions. But for over 130 million taxpayers, your federal income tax filing could be 100% free -- yes, free -- in 2020.
The IRS offers three separate services that could provide you with free assistance to complete your federal income tax return this year.
1. IRS Free File for low- to mid-income earners
To begin with, the IRS provides its own downloadable software that can walk taxpayers through the process in the exact same way TurboTax, TaxAct, and other tax software programs do. Known as "Free File," this option is open to anyone with an income below $69,000 in 2019. According to the IRS website, free state returns are also available, if you happen to live in a state where a tax return is required.
According to annual wage data for 2018 provided by the Social Security Administration, 130.1 million Americans made $64,999.99 or less, with another 4.2 million earning between $65,000 and $69,999.99. This means that well over 130 million Americans were below the earnings threshold (at least based on previous-year wage data) that would allow them to use IRS Free File.
It's also worth noting that the IRS makes Free File fillable forms available to individuals earning more than $69,000. While the IRS will ensure that the calculations on these fillable forms are correct, it doesn't provide the walkthrough for middle- to upper-income earners that's provided to those with less than $69,000 in income. In short, unless you're tax-savvy, you'd probably be best sticking with a tax professional or using tax software to prepare your federal filing if you earn more than $69,000.
2. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance
Next, the IRS provides added help for individuals earning less than $56,000, as of 2019. The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or VITA, aids those taxpayers who might need extra assistance, beyond just free tax software, in preparing their federal filing. VITA provides IRS-certified volunteers who help disabled persons, folks who speak limited English, and other persons under the $56,000 income limit who may otherwise be struggling to prepare their federal filing.
In 2018, at least 120 million people earned less than $56,000, per Social Security Administration wage statistics.
3. Tax Counseling for the Elderly
The IRS also provides a special service, known as Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), which caters to seniors aged 60 and up.
Similar to VITA, the TCE service is available to seniors with incomes of less than $56,000 in 2019. But what's particularly unique about the TCE service is that the IRS-certified volunteers tend to be older and from nonprofit organizations receiving grants from the IRS. In other words, they're often seniors themselves who happen to understand how pensions, retirement distributions, and other factors might impact an older taxpayer's federal return. This also makes these IRS-certified volunteers acutely aware of the deductions and credits available to seniors. According to the IRS, most TCE tax aide sites are operated by the AARP's Tax Aide program.
The point is, more than half of all taxpaying adults in this country shouldn't have to pay a dime to prepare their federal tax return in 2020 with these three IRS options available.