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Filers should take advantage of free online services

TurboTax offers some free online filing of income tax returns.

Boston Globe/file 2013

TurboTax offers some free online filing of income tax returns.

It’s that time of year, when TurboTax and H&R Block are busy advertising their paid tax preparation services with commercials featuring celebrity voice-overs and promises of aircraft carrier-size refunds. Less publicized, though, are the free options these well-known tax-season brands and other companies offer.

Lower- and moderate-income taxpayers, who earn an adjusted gross income of less than $58,000 either individually or filing jointly as a married couple, can access tax preparation software packages from many of these companies online for free through a partnership with the IRS. Nearly 70 percent of Americans earn less than $58,000 and can take advantage of the program at IRS.gov/freefile, said Tim Hugo, executive director of Free File Alliance, a Virginia-based nonprofit that helps manage the no-cost service.

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Fourteen companies, including TurboTax, H&R Block, Liberty Tax Service, and TaxSlayer, along with some lesser-known tax preparers, such as TaxSimple and Free1040TaxReturn, offer free e-filing for federal tax returns.

“It’s essentially the same product that they are offering in the commercial market,” Hugo said. The alliance has been offering the free tax software since 2002. Taxpayers have used it to complete 40 million returns over that time, he said.

Filing electronically can speed a refund. The IRS website includes a list of the participating companies; each has its own eligibility requirements based on income, age, state residency, and military status. Consumers can research each company on their own and pick the one that best suits them.

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The IRS website can also help taxpayers find the best software for them with a quick, online questionnaire that asks how much they made, their age and whether they qualify for the earned income tax credit or served in the military. The site narrows down the search of potential tax preparation programs. Filers are then directed to the specific company website.

For taxpayers who don’t meet the strict income requirements, don’t worry. Many of these companies offer similar bare-bones tax preparation programs on their websites, too. These programs are best for taxpayers filing simple returns without investment income or mortgages. This free tax software generally does not allow consumers to speak directly with a company representative but does let them submit e-mail questions.

The companies will ask taxpayers if they want to be added to a mailing list or pay for additional services, but consumers can opt out, Hugo said. Still, by going through the IRS website, filers will avoid a barrage of pop-up advertising. The free filing software used to have advertising, but that’s no longer the case, Hugo said.

The companies are willing to offer the free service in the hopes that as customers’ incomes grow and returns become more complicated, they will eventually pay for the upgraded service, which includes more hand-holding, access to a tax specialist over the phone, and a search for qualifying deductions and tax credits.

While companies offer federal filings free, they charge extra to complete the state filings. Considered an add-on service, TaxSlayer charges $12.95, Liberty Tax charges $19.95, and Tax Simple charges $24.95 for state returns.

But consumers can find free tax software for filing state returns at the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s website. Slightly more than 124,000 returns, or 3.5 percent, were filed through the software, Webfile for Income, last year, according to state officials.

Massachusetts tax officials have tried to encourage more people to abandon paper tax forms and file electronically by letting taxpayers know about the Webfile for Income and reducing the distribution of paper tax forms.

There’s also another advantage, said Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for the Department of Revenue. The state’s step-by-step free e-file program, which does the math for taxpayers, also doesn’t have an income limit, Dufresne said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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