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Updated on Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Tax help isn’t cheap. Do it yourself tax services like TurboTax and H&R Block are easy to use, but can cost anywhere from $50 to $100, (state and federal returns combined) depending on the tax forms you need to file. There’s always a risk you’ll make an error since the tax situation of a senior is more complex than your average filing.
Another option is hiring tax adviser. The benefit here is you can take comfort knowing your return is handled by a professional. But, working with one can cost a few hundred dollars as well. Thankfully, there’s a solution for seniors that’s completely free tax help.
Free Tax Filing Programs in Detail
Tax Counseling for Elderly (TCE) is a government-backed initiative that provides tax help to people over 60 years old. Organizations across the country apply for a grant to offer the program. Some of the organizations have tax services available year round. Most often, the program just runs through tax season – January 1 to April 15.
Another similar program to the TCE is the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Unlike the TCE program that’s specifically for seniors, this program is available to all people that make less than $54,000 annually, people with disabilities, seniors and those who speak limited English.
The key benefit for seniors of using either of these programs is access to an IRS-certified professional without shelling out the equivalent cost of hiring one. Seniors often have a more complicated tax return including Social Security benefits, pensions and investments. Plus, you need to make important decisions about whether you should take the standard deduction or itemize.
It’s worthwhile to speak with someone knowledgeable to find out which choices will benefit you the most. And to know the return you file is void of errors just in case your name comes up for an audit.
How to Take Advantage of Free Programs
Taking advantage of each program is easy. You head over to the government web page called Get Free Tax Help.
Put in your zip code and it’ll populate a few locations near you that offer the service.
The database shows you the timeframe each location provides tax assistance, the hours of operation and whether or not an appointment is required.
Before you go to one of these free tax centers, here are a few documents the IRS says you should bring with you:
- A photo ID
- A copy of last year’s federal and state returns
- Social Security cards for you, your spouse and dependents
- If you don’t have an SSN, an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number
- Birth dates for you and everyone on your tax return
- Wage and earning statements from your employers
- Interest and dividend statements from banks
- Health Insurance Statements
- A blank check from the account where you want to direct deposit your refund
- Affordable Health Care Statements
You should also bring along your spouse if you’re filing a joint return so you can both sign off electronically.
[Free Tax Filing for Every State Online]
What These Programs Can’t Help You With
Both programs can help you with certain tax forms, but there are a few unique situations in which you may need to hire a professional.
Volunteers of VITA or TCE can’t prepare a Schedule C for lost revenue. A Schedule C is the form used to report income or loss for a business you run as a sole proprietor.
The programs can’t help you with a complicated Schedule D either. Schedule D forms are used to report capital gains or losses. You also can’t apply for a Social Security Card (form SS-5) with either tax program or complete forms to determine your worker status for income withholding (SS-8).
Certified tax volunteers won’t prepare Form 8606, which you use to report non-deductible IRA contributions. Form 8615 for a minor’s investment income and Part 4 & 5 of Form 8962 for premium tax credits are also off limits.
Word of Warning for All Seniors
Scammers are known to target the senior community, so be careful with your sensitive data. This is important to think about whether you decide to file on your own or give personal information to someone helping you.
To start, you should only work with people who have proper credentials. If you decide to go with a non-profit initiative for tax help, verify that the organization is, in fact, legitimate. Double check the government website before you trust anyone.
Avoid giving personal information through the mail, email or over the Internet, unless you contact the tax advisor first. You should be suspicious of anyone who reaches out to you offering unsolicited tax help.
If you give sensitive information online, protect your data with a firewall, anti-spam software or a program that has security protections.
There are a few key signs that will alert you to identify theft. One major indicator is if multiple returns are filed with your Social Security number. Another red flag is if your return says you owe money for prior years and you don’t have a record of it.
Learn more about how to protect yourself from tax scams here.
How to Respond to Identity Theft
If you do find that your information has been compromised do something about it immediately. Sometimes the IRS will catch on to fraud before you do. In this case, the IRS will send you a notice and instructions to fix the problem.
If you don’t get a notice and believe your identity has been stolen, file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov.
Filing taxes isn’t the highlight of the year, but it doesn’t have to be a hassle either. Taking advantage of these free resources can save you money and make your life a little easier this tax season.