WASHINGTON -- You still have time to get help figuring out and then filing your federal tax return.
The deadline to file and pay your taxes this year is April 17. The Internal Revenue Service's Free File program, conducted in partnership with private-sector tax-preparation companies, offers software that will assist those with low or moderate incomes prepare and e-file their returns. More than 33 million tax forms have been filed through Free File since its debut in 2003.
This year, taxpayers with 2011 adjusted gross incomes up to $57,000, which the IRS says includes most Americans, can take advantage of the Free File program. If you are married and filing jointly, the $57,000 limit applies to the adjusted gross income for both of you combined.
However, each participating company sets its own eligibility requirements. Look carefully to see if you qualify to work with a particular company in the Free File alliance. Eligibility may include your age, state or military status. At www.yesicanefile.org, you can prepare and e-file your return at no cost if your adjusted gross income is $29,000 or less, or if you qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is a tax credit for low-income working families. If your income is higher, you can e-file for $4.99.
To search for companies that are participating in Free File program, go to www.irs.gov/freefile and choose the link "Pick a Free File company." Once you select a company, you'll leave the IRS website and be directed to the partner site to prepare your return. During the filing process, you will be asked a series of questions to determine your deductions and credits to help prepare your return. Some companies even support state tax returns.
If you earn too much to qualify for Free File, you can still use the program's Free File Fillable Forms, which do some math calculations and provide links to some IRS publications. Last year, 79 percent of taxpayers -- 106 million people -- filed electronically, the IRS said. But I should note that only participants in Free File get to use the software providing step-by-step help by asking questions about your tax situation.
When just using the fill-in form, you enter your tax information, perform basic calculations, sign and submit your return electronically, and then print it out for your records. You have to go through the IRS to avoid any charges for preparing or e-filing your federal tax return.
The IRS cautions about common mistakes:
-- Entering the wrong Social Security number.
-- Choosing the wrong filing status for your situation. There are five filing statuses: single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household, and qualifying widow(er) with dependent child.
-- Making math mistakes. This is why the IRS encourages electronic filing.
-- Entering the wrong banking account information. Double-check your bank routing and account numbers if you are using direct deposit for your refund. When you combine e-file with direct deposit, you can generally get your refund in as few as 10 days.
-- Forgetting (by accident or on purpose) to sign your return. The IRS doesn't play the game of "oh, I forgot to sign the check." The agency says an unsigned tax return is like just like an unsigned check. It's invalid. Such an error could result in your getting hit with a failure-to-file-on-time penalty, which is levied at 5 percent of your unpaid taxes each month or part of a month that your return is late. It caps out at 25 percent of your unpaid taxes.
Most important, if you owe and can't pay, don't panic. OK, that's probably not going to happen. Given the collection methods the IRS has, you'll likely become concerned. But nonetheless, contact the agency. This year, the IRS is specifically offering help to the unemployed and small-business owners through its Fresh Start initiative. Eligible unemployed and certain self-employed individuals will have until Oct. 15 to pay their taxes and avoid the failure-to-pay penalty. The reprieve applies for taxes owed for 2011 and you have to complete IRS Form 1127-A "Application for Extension of Time for Payment of Income Tax for 2011 Due to Undue Hardship."
Get in touch with the IRS to determine what payment options are available. For instance, more than 75 percent of taxpayers who are eligible for its installment agreement can apply online, the IRS said. To find out more about the process, go to www.irs.gov and type "Online Payment Agreement" in the search box.
Readers can write to Michelle Singletary c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071. Her email address is singletarym(at)washpost.com. Comments and questions are welcome, but due to the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. Please also note comments or questions may be used in a future column, with the writer's name, unless a specific request to do otherwise is indicated.Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group