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Free tax help for many filers at VITA, TCE sites

VITA free tax prep and filing in Rutherford County Tennessee
Free tax-preparation and filing help, like that shown here at a Rutherford Country, Tennessee, VITA office, is available at thousands of sites across the country.

You need help with your taxes but you can't afford a professional.

A couple of community-based, Internal Revenue Service endorsed and, best of all, free tax filing help options may just be the answer.

If you earn around $54,000 or less, have a disability, are elderly or speak limited English, you may qualify for free tax help from IRS-certified volunteers at Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) and Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) locations nationwide.

A variety of volunteer tax help: The VITA program offers free tax help to individuals who need assistance preparing their own tax returns and who:

  • Generally make $54,000 or less,
  • Have disabilities and/or
  • Don't speak much English.

In these cases, IRS-certified volunteers at VITA sites will provide qualifying taxpayers free basic income tax return preparation, as well as electronically file their tax returns.

Similarly, the TCE program offers no-cost tax help for all taxpayers, but focuses particularly on filers who are 60 years of age and older.

Volunteers at TCE locations specialize in questions about pensions and retirement-related issues unique to seniors. Many of the IRS-certified volunteers at TCE locations are retired individuals so they know the issues taxpayers are facing.

Finding a service near you: VITA and TCE sites are generally located at community and neighborhood centers, libraries, schools, shopping malls and other convenient locations across the country.

You can find the nearest VITA or TCE by using the VITA Locator Tool or calling toll-free 1 (800) 906-9887.

Most TCE sites are operated by the AARP Foundation's Tax Aide program. You can find the TCE Tax-Aide site nearest you between January and April by using the AARP Site Locator Tool or calling toll-free 1 (888) 227-7669.

You can also use the IRS2Go mobile app to find a site near you.

VITA TCE banner

With a couple of clicks on my laptop I found 10 VITA sites and 13 AARP TCE locations within 20 miles of my house.

Sites are added as they share their opening date, so if you don't find one convenient to you, keep checking for newly added locations.

Lots, but not total, tax help: The goal of volunteers at VITA and TCE sites is to help as many eligible taxpayers as possible. To that end, this means they typically help the large pool of taxpayers with more basic filing needs.

That's why VITA and TCE will not help prepare returns that involve:

  • Schedule C sole proprietor returns with losses
  • Complicated Schedule D filings, i.e., capital gains and losses
  • Form SS-5, request for Social Security Number
  • Form 8606, reporting of non-deductible IRA contributions
  • Form 8615, minor's investment income, aka the kiddie tax
  • Form SS-8, determination of worker status for purposes of federal employment taxes and income tax withholding
  • Parts 4 and 5 of Form 8962, premium tax credits related to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)

Sort-of DIY: Some VITA and TCE sites also give filers the option to prepare their own basic federal and state tax returns for free using Web-based tax preparation software.

How is this do it yourself option at a VITA or TCE location different from Free File? At one of the volunteer locations, you do your taxes online, but if you run into a problem someone is there to help guide you through the process.

Look for the "Self-Prep" notation in the location listings if you're interested in trying to do your taxes yourself, but like the idea of expert back-stopping if you have trouble or questions.

Virtual free tax prep, filing help: A limited number of select sites also offer filers help via Virtual VITA/TCE.

This option generally is available in rural areas where free tax prep volunteers may be limited.

Virtual VITA/TCE uses a variety of secure technology, such as video chat software and file sharing technologies, to connect you with an IRS-certified volunteer located in a different office.

Pre-help preparation: VITA and TCE are free, but just as if you were going to a private paid tax prepare, you still must be prepared before you get to one of the sites.

To ensure that your tax return can be completed accurately, bring with you:

  • Proof of identification, such as a photo ID
  • Social Security cards or Individual Taxpayer Identification notices/cards for you, your spouse and any dependents
  • Birth dates for you, your spouse and dependents you will claim on the return
  • Proof of foreign status if applying for ITIN
  • All W-2 and 1099 forms
  • Any other information for other income not reported on a 1099
  • Information supporting all deductions and credits
  • Total paid to day care provider and the care giver's tax ID number
  • Affordable Care Act documents, including Forms 1095-A, B or C or a Health Insurance Exemption Certificate, if received  
  • Proof of an account at a bank or other financial institution for direct deposit of refund
  • A copy of last year's tax return, if applicable
  • For filing of prior year returns, copies of income transcripts from IRS and, if applicable, your state filings.

Also note that if you're married and you and your spouse want to file a joint return, both of you must come to the VITA or TCE site.

Finally, note that while VITA and TCE volunteers strive to provide the best tax help they can, available return preparation services can vary at each site due to the availability of volunteers certified with the tax law expertise required to file your return.

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