by Kristen Doerer for ProPublica
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Series: The ProPublica Free Tax Guide
Free, Fact-Checked Tax Information. That's All.
Intuit, the Silicon Valley software giant behind TurboTax, doesn’t provide the only way to file your taxes electronically, but it has captured the market share like no other.
For over two decades, Intuit waged a campaign to prevent the federal government from making filing taxes simple and free for most taxpayers. The company spent millions of dollars on lobbying to restrict the IRS from creating its own free filing system, all while growing its multibillion-dollar franchise.
If you made $73,000 or less in 2022, you can file your federal taxes for free through the IRS Free File program. You must start at the IRS Free File page to get the correct tax products.
Why Do I Have to Pay TurboTax?
Intuit once participated in the IRS Free File program, a public-private partnership between the IRS and tax software companies to provide free tax filing services to millions of lower-income Americans. But it left the program in 2021 after ProPublica detailed the many ways TurboTax tricked Americans into paying to file their return.
TurboTax made its free version difficult to find, deliberately hiding its Free File landing page from search engines. (The code that enabled this has since been removed.) Through “dark pattern” web design tricks, it directed customers away from TurboTax’s Free File software in favor of a paid option. Meanwhile, it marketed some tax software options as “free” but would later charge taxpayers fees to finish the process.
After ProPublica reported on TurboTax’s deceptive campaign to stop Americans from filing for free, the FTC began investigating Intuit and last year sued to stop TurboTax’s “free” ad campaign. In May 2022, the company reached a $141 million settlement with state attorneys general to pay lower-income Americans who were “unfairly charged” for filing their taxes. Intuit did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.
Today, TurboTax continues to advertise a “free” version but notes it’s only for simple tax returns — defined by Intuit as IRS Form 1040 only “with no added complexity.” The FTC said only one-third of all tax filers in 2020 qualified for TurboTax’s “simple return.”
How to Do Taxes for Free Without TurboTax
If you made less than $73,000 in 2022, you can file for free with the IRS Free File program. You must start at the IRS Free File site to access the truly free version of the tax software.
According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, about 70% of taxpayers were eligible to file for these free guided tax preparation programs during the 2020 tax year, but less than 3% of eligible taxpayers used the program.
There are two ways you can file your taxes through the program: You can use guided tax preparation (provided by partner companies) or use IRS fillable forms.
Guided Tax Preparation
If you’ve used TurboTax before, you’re familiar with the guided tax preparation process. The IRS offers 11 free guided tax preparation options delivered by participating tax preparation companies. The software will ask you simple questions and compute all the math for you.
Each free option has different requirements to use them for free. Some tax preparers will charge for state tax filings, for example, while others only offer free services for those making under $60,000. The IRS created a tool to browse free file options based on your adjusted gross income, filing status, age, state of residence, eligibility for the earned income tax credit and military status.
Free Fillable Forms
You can also choose to do the work yourself directly on the IRS website by filling out Free File Fillable Forms, which are essentially electronic versions of IRS paper forms. Anyone, regardless of income, can file their taxes for free with these forms. With this method, you don’t get step-by-step guidance, and you’ll have to work on your state tax return separately.
Step by Step: How to File Your Taxes Through the IRS Free File Program
1. Gather your tax documents. Before you begin guided tax preparation, find all documents related to your income so you can easily fill out your tax return. These forms and information could include:
- All income statements like W2s or 1099s.
- Any information about adjustments to your income you’ll need to make.
- Dependent and spouse information, such as Social Security numbers.
- Your adjusted gross income from 2021 and self-selected personal identification number from the 2021 tax year.
A full list of necessary paperwork can be found here, but this information will get you started on selecting a free file option.
2. Browse free file options. Use the IRS Free File Online Lookup Tool to direct you to the offers you qualify for based on your adjusted gross income, filing status, age, state of residence, eligibility for the earned income tax credit and military status.
Or you can browse the 11 free file programs offered by On-LineTaxes, 1040Now, ezTaxReturn.com, FileYourTaxes.com, TaxAct, FreeTaxUSA and TaxSlayer.
3. Choose the program that meets your needs. Now, select the program that you want. It will take you to the chosen IRS partner’s landing page, where you will need to create a new account or sign into an existing account. From there, the program will guide you through e-filing your tax return.
Important: To receive the free file option, you must begin your guided tax preparation at IRS.gov. If you go directly to a company’s website, you may not receive the benefits offered through the IRS Free File program.
About this guide: ProPublica has reported on the IRS, the Free File program and other tax topics for years. ProPublica’s tax guide is not personalized tax advice. Speak to a tax professional about your specific tax situation.