taxes

How to e-file your tax return

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Couple signing paperwork at home | goodluz/Shutterstock.com

goodluz/Shutterstock.com

Taxpayers who send in paper returns via snail mail are in the minority. A whopping 86 percent of taxpayers filed electronically last year. Clearly, efforts by the IRS to encourage electronic filing are proving effective.

Not surprisingly, e-filing comes in two waves: early filers, who generally are getting tax money back and like the speed e-filing offers in getting the refund process going, and taxpayers who wait until just before the tax deadline to hit the "enter" key.

E-filing by the numbers
2015 tax season*2016 tax season*Change
E-filed by tax professionals for clients78.478.7+0.7%
E-filed directly by taxpayers50.453.1+5.1%
Total returns filed, paper and electronically150.9152.5+0.8%
Total e-filed returns128.8131.9+2.4%

*Data in millions.
Source: IRS

In addition to the appeal of more precise time control over your 1040's delivery, electronic filing offers several more attractions. In most cases, the computer filing programs have all the forms you'll need and they are regularly updated. That's important because Congress often makes last-minute changes to tax laws that delay publication of forms. By using software, you'll get the current and correct filing material sooner.

You're also taken step by step through the filing process. And the electronic calculators make fewer mistakes, as long as you enter the correct numbers.

But the most appealing e-filing advantage: Your return gets to and is processed by the IRS sooner. The IRS says turnaround on an e-filed return is, generally, less than two weeks.

Even better, there are a variety of ways to electronically submit your return. Here's a look at your e-file options.

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Hire a tax professional

The IRS says computer filing through an authorized tax professional has been the core of e-filing since the system debuted in 1986. Paid tax preparers work with clients to complete their returns and then send them electronically to the IRS. Some preparers take care of the whole process, getting the taxpayer's raw data, exploring appropriate tax breaks, filling in the electronic forms and then submitting them. Others let the taxpayer fill out a paper return and then simply transfer that information to the electronic format for filing.

Do-it-yourself options

If you're comfortable doing your own taxes, you can purchase tax software and put it on your computer. You can either pick up the program at your neighborhood electronics store or department store, or go to the company's website and download it. These packages promise to save you time, as well as cash. Just make sure you choose software that fits your filing (and computer) situation.

E-file online

Don't want to clutter your computer with a program you use just once a year? Go to one of the many tax software websites and e-file directly online. In some cases, online filing is free. Even if you do have to pay for the service, it's generally cheaper than buying the software and you don't have to worry about working through any glitches that pop up when you load a new program onto your computer. Some people, however, aren't comfortable with their personal tax information floating out there in cyberspace if they can't complete and file their Form 1040 in one online visit.

Use the Free File Alliance

Each of the three previous e-file options might cost you. But you may be able to file for free if you meet criteria established by the various members of the Free File Alliance, a government and tax software industry partnership created to encourage more e-filers via the Free File program on the IRS website. While Free File makes it cheap and easy for many taxpayers to file, it's not available to everyone. The major determinant is your income.

This filing season, only individuals with adjusted gross incomes of $64,000 or less can use the tax prep software and e-file for no charge. The IRS calculates that 70 percent of taxpayers are eligible to use it. However, the IRS also offers Free File Fillable Forms which can be used by any taxpayer, regardless of income. You won't have access to online software with this option, but if you know what information goes on your Form 1040, you can type it in and send it, for free, directly to the IRS.

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Other electronic tax considerations

E-filers also should look into the electronic transfer of tax money -- either a refund coming to you or money you owe the IRS.

You can have your refund directly deposited to a chosen account by giving the IRS your personal account details. This should shave a few more days off the wait for your refund.

If you owe, you can have money sent directly to Uncle Sam through several e-payment methods, from credit card payments (remember you'll also have to pay a processing fee) to direct transmission of the money to the IRS. With the IRS' Electronic Federal Tax Payment System, or EFTPS, you can schedule advance and recurring tax payments, but registration is required before you can use it. The Direct Pay option, which the IRS instituted in 2014, doesn't require registration, but you can only make one payment at a time. EFTPS and Direct Pay are free.

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