It may not be possible, as the old saying goes, to escape death or taxes, but in normal times you could escape the fees charged by tax preparation services and still get assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has meant closure of many Volunteer Income Tax Assistance sites or limited in-person services, although some may offer drop-off or virtual assistance.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) recommends taxpayers use resources available on the official IRS website. The IRS Free File program (see information below) also continues to be available. Free assistance is particularly important for low- and moderate-income taxpayers, who can ill afford pricey advice, but may need help navigating complex IRS rules and tax forms.
Some filers may owe little to no taxes, or might be entitled to a healthy refund. In addition, they may qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). This is a so-called “refundable tax credit,” which means the government will actually pay you cash for any amount of the credit that exceeds your tax liability.
This is an important benefit—it can top $6,000 for those with three children—so don’t miss out simply because you don’t want to pay a tax preparer, or lose part of it because of the fees charged for tax filing assistance. Learn more about tax credits you may be eligible for.
Emergency legislation also provided for economic impact payments—stimulus checks—during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Eligible taxpayers who did not receive full payment for 2021—which could amount to $7,000 for a married couple with three children—can apply for the Recovery Rebate Credit in their 2021 tax return. This credit is also fully refundable, as is the expanded Child Tax Credit for 2021.
Here are several ways to file your taxes for free to help you keep more of your hard-earned educator income.
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program
The Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program is available to those who make $57,000 or less in income. Volunteers who are trained and certified by the IRS are available at community centers, libraries, schools and other sites to help prepare federal tax returns.
These volunteer preparers can assist you with most types of income reporting: wages and salaries, interest and dividend income, pension and Social Security benefits, simple capital gains and state tax refunds.
Other issues for which they provide assistance include some, but not all, cases for sale of a home, self-employed income, health savings accounts and itemized deductions.
They cannot provide assistance for Schedule C (sole proprietorship business) with losses or complicated capital gains and losses.
VITA services are also available to those with disabilities, the elderly and taxpayers with limited English. Some VITA sites remain open and you can use the VITA Locator Tool to find them.
Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE)
Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), mainly operated in collaboration with AARP, has been revamped under COVID-19 to include remote assistance under the Tax-Aide program.
IRS Free File
Filers with incomes of $72,000 and below can take advantage of the Free File program through the IRS, which makes brand-name tax preparation software available as well as free e-filing. Taxpayers can choose among several participating firms for the software that best fits their needs.
A big advantage to Free File is using the e-filing option and signing up for direct deposit so that you can get your tax refund in a matter of days instead of waiting weeks for a check in the mail.
Those with incomes above $72,000 can use Fillable Forms through the Free File service. This allows you to e-file your federal return and get a quick refund but it doesn’t provide any assistance beyond the directions on the tax forms themselves.
I don’t qualify for free tax prep help. Now what?
If you are not eligible for free tax preparation for teachers, the cheapest option—of course—is to fill out the tax forms yourself. For individuals whose only income is the wages or salary reported on a W-2, it’s actually not very difficult.
Those who have more complicated tax returns may want to seek the assistance of paid tax preparers. However, there are various online programs that are not prohibitively expensive and can lead you through the process rather painlessly.
Thanks to your NEA membership, you can find discounts on tax software: Check our NEA Discount Marketplace for discounts and cash-back offers from tax software retailers such as Quicken, TurboTax and H&R Block. On the NEA Discount Marketplace page, in the left navigation panel, first select “All Stores,” then select the “Office Supplies” dropdown, and click “Tax Preparation” to see what offers are available.
Make sure you figure out if a tax deduction or two may be available to you based on your educator status and related expenses.
Additionally, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an agency created as part of the Dodd-Frank reform act in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, will post updated links each tax season with tools to help taxpayers.
NOTE: Information in this article is accurate as of January 4, 2022.