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Ready, set, Free File. IRS' online, no-cost tax preparation, e-filing option is available Friday, Jan. 15

Although the Internal Revenue Service won't start processing tax returns until Tuesday, Jan. 19, taxpayers eligible for Free File can start using that online option today.

IRS Free File icon_655x296

With Free File, the public-private partnership of the IRS and tax software manufacturers that began in 2003, taxpayers can prepare their returns online and e-file them, all at no cost.

Income key factor: To use Free File this year, your adjusted gross income last tax year must have been $62,000 or less. That earnings limit is $2,000 more than last year. It also applies to all filing statuses.

The IRS and Free File Alliance say that the income cutoff applies to 70 percent of U.S. taxpayers, or around 100 million individuals and families.

13 Free File participant companies: There are 13 tax preparation software options available at Free File this filing season:

1040NOW.NET

1040.com Free File Edition

eSmart Free File Edition

ezTaxReturn.com

FileYourTaxes.com

Free1040TaxReturn.com

FreeTaxUSA® IRS Free File Edition

H&R Block's Free File

Jackson Hewitt

Online Taxes at OLT.com

TaxACT® Free File

TaxSlayer

TurboTax ® All Free(SM)

While each company has the $62,000 income threshold, they also can set their own parameters for filers. Some companies offer free state tax returns, too; others a fee for the state services. Check them all out to make sure the one you choose is best for your tax situation.

Or you can use the Help Me Find Free File Software online tool to select your Free File software. At that IRS Web page, you'll answer questions about your income, age, state residency, eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit and military status to find out which Free File tax software you can use.

Fillable Forms still around: If you don't qualify for Free File's software, you still might be able to file your taxes at no cost by using Free File's Fillable Forms.

This option provides electronic versions of the most-used paper tax forms. If you already know how to do your taxes without software, this is a good option.

Note, though, that while Fillable Forms does basic math, it doesn't transfer data from form to form as software does. And since it's at the IRS website, there are no state tax return options.

Special 2016 features: New this filing season, several Free File providers are offering users the option of importing their Form W-2 information. This direct transfer of wage and salary information, rather than having the filer enter the figures, can help reduce errors.

Free File also can help taxpayers with Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, tax return requirements. Just as last filing season, almost everyone will need to do something ACA-related when filing their returns, from reporting health care coverage to claiming an exemption from coverage to claiming/reconciling the premium tax credit to making a shared responsibility payment if they didn't have acceptable medical insurance.

And taxpayers with a myRA, the new, free, retirement savings account from the Treasury Department, also can use Free File to deposit their full or a portion of their tax refund to the account.

Security, timing, etc.: In using Free File programs, you'll find that the participant software manufacturers are hewing to the Security Summit Initiative standards. This means you'll have to go through additional identity theft safeguards to complete your free tax return preparation and free electronic filing.

Although you can use Free File starting today, the e-filed returns will not be transmitted to the IRS until official tax season 2016 opening day, Tuesday, Jan. 19.

If in using Free File you discover you owe Uncle Sam but you don't have the money to pay right now, don't worry. You can still file your return now and then schedule your taxes-due payment as late as the filing deadline, which this year is April 18 for most taxpayers.

And if you can't meet the April due date to file your 1040, you also can use Free File to get a six-month extension

Beware scams: Finally, Free File is available only at the IRS website. I included the link to the special page at the beginning of this section, but once you've left this post, you'll want to get there by going to IRS.gov and clicking the Free File icon on the home page. This will ensure you go to the real, not a fake, IRS site.

Don't -- I repeat, DO NOT -- fall for email notices to use Free File. While the IRS would love for every Free File eligible taxpayer to use the program, it's not going out individually encouraging taxpayers to use it.

Those Free File email solicitations are phishing scams from tax identity thieves looking to get your personal filing info so they can get a fraudulent refund under your name.

So go only to the real IRS/Free File site and use it, no other online page, to fill out your 1040 and e-file it for free.

You also might find these items of interest:

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