Finding free tax help

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Everyone needs a little tax help now and then. Not all of us, however, can afford to pay a tax professional for guidance. Luckily for us, there are some places that offer tax help for free.

Start dialing

The Internal Revenue Service’s automated customer service line at (800) 829-1040 offers recorded tax information 24 hours a day. The system has a variety of menus and topics covering common tax questions and is available in English and Spanish.

During tax season, if you call Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. your local time, you can talk to a person. But be sure you have the time and patience, as waits can be long during the height of the filing rush.

You also can check out IRS TeleTax topics. By calling (800) 829-4477 you’ll hear prerecorded messages on about 150 tax matters. You’ll get your information sooner if you know the three-digit code for the tax topic you need. The full list is available in the instruction booklets for each of the three forms (1040, 1040A and 1040EZ).

Most of these tax topics also are available online. If you don’t have an instruction booklet or access to a phone while you’re online, the automated TeleTax system lists the identification number for each topic.

Finding forms

If you just need a form, check out Bankrate’s tax form library for the most frequently filed forms.

If it’s a specialized form or publication you need, try the IRS Web site or order the document from the agency’s Forms Distribution Center at (800) 829-3676. As with the TeleTax topics, the catalog of available documents is in the instruction packages for the individual tax returns.

The IRS promises to get the material to your mailbox within 10 days. If it’s backordered, the IRS agent taking your call will let you know.

Come on in

Do you feel more comfortable asking your questions in person? You have several options, depending on where you live.

For face-to-face help in obtaining common tax forms and publications, check out your local post office or library. The availability of most forms via the Internet has reduced the amount of tax paperwork found in these locations, but some still set up racks of the most commonly used forms during tax-filing season.

Libraries that do not carry a large selection of forms might have IRS Publication 1132, which contains forms you can copy, or an IRS CD-ROM that contains hundreds of current year tax forms, instructions and publications that can be downloaded. There may be a nominal copying fee.

If you need more than just paperwork, head to a regional IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center, or TAC, for more personal problem solving. The IRS had planned to close many of these offices, but after receiving more money from Congress in late 2005, the agency reversed itself and kept most of the centers open.

At you can click on your state to find all TACs within its boundaries. Or use the online locator to find the center in or near your ZIP code.

The centers are open every business day, but call first to find out the exact hours of operation. And as with the phone lines, during filing season you likely will have a wait at the centers.

Community outreach

Your community also may offer IRS-sponsored help programs such as Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, known as VITA, or Tax Counseling for the Elderly, usually referred to as TCE, programs. In both of these outreach efforts, which are aimed primarily at persons aged 60 or older, IRS-trained volunteers provide free basic tax return preparation services.

VITA is for taxpayers who cannot afford paid professional assistance, are elderly, have a low or fixed income (not more than $40,000), do not speak English, are disabled or have other special needs.

Call (800) 906-9887 to find the VITA or TCE site nearest you. Also check with AARP, the national advocacy group for older Americans formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons. AARP is the largest TCE participant and during filing season the group also operates Tax Aide programs nationwide. Call (888) AARPNOW, or (888) 227-7669, to see if AARP tax help is available in your area or use the organization’s online Tax Aide locator.

If you have tax needs beyond filing your return, such as tax disputes or litigation, you might be able to get help from a low-income taxpayer clinic, or LITC. These groups represent eligible taxpayers before the Internal Revenue Service in audit, appeals, and collection issues, and federal tax litigation for free or for a nominal charge.

Surf the tax ‘Net

And, of course, you can stay right where you are — at your personal computer. There’s a wealth of tax information on the Internet. In addition to the tax news, tips and advice in Bankrate’s 2010 Tax Guide, the IRS provides a wide variety of tax material at its Web site.