Tax laws are so complex many taxpayers don't feel comfortable filing out their own returns, but getting professional help can be expensive.
Believe it or not, the Internal Revenue Service wants to help.
In addition to its online Free File service, which offers name-brand software at no cost for taxpayers with adjusted gross income of $57,000 or less, the IRS sponsors programs that bring together trained tax preparers and those who need help with their returns.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance and Tax Counseling for the Elderly programs both operate in conjunction with local governments and social service agencies, libraries and other community organizations to make the help easy to access.
_ The VITA program
VITA features IRS-certified volunteers who provide free basic income tax return preparation to qualified individuals, mainly those who earn $50,000 or less.
The volunteers can help make sure taxpayers don't overlook special credits, such as the earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and credit for the elderly or the disabled.
Most VITA program sites offer free electronic filing, which helps speed up the refund process.
_ The TCE program
TCE offers free tax help for everyone, but its main focus is people over 60.
The volunteers specialize in questions about pensions and retirement issues unique to seniors. IRS-certified volunteers who provide tax counseling are often retired individuals associated with non-profit organizations like AARP, which receive grants to offer the service.
To find a location offering VITA assistance, visit the IRS website at http://1.usa.gov/qO22, or call 800-906-9887. To locate a TCE site, seniors may also click on the AARP Foundation Tax-Aide website at http://aarp.us/baDshn or call the Tax-Aide information line at 888-227-7669 to locate a TCE site.
For both programs, taxpayers must bring the following to get their returns prepared:
_ A picture ID
_ Social Security card or individual taxpayer identification numbers for the filer, spouse and all dependents
_ Wage and earning statement(s) Form W-2, W-2G, 1099-R and 1099-Misc from all employers
_ Interest and dividend statements from banks (Forms 1099)
_ A copy of last year's federal and state tax returns, if available
_ Proof of bank account routing numbers and account numbers for direct deposit, such as a blank check
_ Total paid for daycare and the daycare provider's tax identifying number, if appropriate
_ If a couple wants to file electronically as married-filing-jointly, both spouses must be present to sign the required forms.
Some of the VITA and TCE program locations may also offer guides to help taxpayers use the self-assistance services, which are provided for those who need only a little help or simply need access to a computer. IRS-certified volunteers are on hand to answer questions that arise as the individual is preparing their own returns.
Local banks and tax-prep companies may also provide free help.
KeyBank, for example, is offering free tax prep on Saturday in 16 cities to taxpayers who qualify for the earned income tax credit. To qualify, earned income must be less than $43,998 with three or more children (or $49,078 for married couples filing jointly). Parents of two children must have earned $40,954 or less ($46,044, married, filing jointly). With one child, the threshold drops to $36,052 ($41,132, married, filing jointly).
The bank requires the same paperwork and forms as the IRS programs.
KeyBank is offering the service in: Denver; Indianapolis; Portland, Maine; Albany, Buffalo, and Syracuse, N.Y.; Akron, Canton, Cleveland, Dayton and Toledo, Ohio; Beaverton, Portland and Salem, Ore. and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.
Free preparation of simple returns is also available at Walmart stores nationwide. H&R Block is also offering free simple return prep at its storefronts through the end of February.