Free File was created in 2003 as a way to get more people to e-file. Its target is taxpayers who might otherwise not e-file because they don't want or can't afford to pay the cost of the computer filing programs or professional tax help.
The key qualification for Free File services is income. This year, taxpayers with adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less, regardless of filing status, can use the online program.
Participating tax software companies can establish other eligibility requirements. Some may limit usage of their programs based on geographic location, military service or other criteria.
To determine which software best fits your filing needs, the Free File website includes an online search tool to help you select one of the participating Free File companies.
Free File contributions to e-filing
Last year, almost 126 million tax returns were filed electronically, according to IRS data complete through Nov. 21, 2014. That represents a nearly 3 percent increase in e-filed returns over the previous year. The sector that showed the most growth last year, according to IRS statistics, was tax returns prepared and filed by taxpayers on their own.
For the past few filing seasons, around 3 million of those self-prepared returns were e-filed through Free File.
"We would love to have more," says Tim Hugo, executive director of the Clifton, Virginia-based Free File Alliance, but he points to the program's overall contribution to e-filing. More than 43 million have used Free File since its inception, according to the IRS.
"We get people in the door for e-filing, people who've never e-filed before," says Hugo. "They may go to a commercial product later on, but they will continue to e-file. We are very pleased with that."
Hugo says the program also has evolved to meet taxpayer needs. "We look at Free File as a three-legged stool," he says. "There is the traditional Free File, fillable forms and VITA providing services to every income."
Working with VITA
The filing needs of lower-income taxpayers are addressed through Free File's continuing partnership with the federal Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, popularly known as VITA.
VITA tax-filing clinics are set up each year in public places -- from libraries to community centers to shopping malls. Its volunteers provide free filing assistance to low- and moderate-income taxpayers who might not be able to afford tax software or professional filing help. This filing season, the services of IRS-certified VITA volunteers are available to people who make $53,000 or less.
"You can do your return there or partially do your return and, if you need help, ask a VITA volunteer," says Hugo. "This helps some of those who are most in need of tax help."
State free filing
In addition, 20-plus states and the District of Columbia also participate in a similar free filing program. In those jurisdictions, some VITA and Tax Counseling for the Elderly, or TCE, sites are making Free File available to eligible taxpayers.
IRS-certified volunteers staff these filing programs to help taxpayers complete and e-file their returns.
You can find a self-help VITA or TCE location at the IRS website by searching for "VITA." If you prefer, call toll-free at (800) 906-9887 for VITA location information or (888) 227-7669 to find a local TCE site.
The fillable forms offer only basic calculations of what's entered on the form. And you must figure out what goes on the form without the online prompting found in software.
Also, the information is not automatically transferred to associated forms. That means you must, for example, manually enter your itemized deductions total from Schedule A to the appropriate line on Form 1040.
Still, taxpayers with relatively simple filing needs who don't want to buy tax software might find fillable forms a welcome alternative.