New IRS Direct File program now available in California


If you’re a California resident and haven’t done your federal tax return for 2023, you now have another, more user-friendly option online: the free Direct File service from the IRS.

It’s not for everyone, however. Instead, it’s aimed mainly at people with very simple annual tax returns, which the Treasury Department said amounts to about 1 of every 3 taxpayers.

Update:

3:38 p.m. March 6, 2024This story has been updated to include ID.me’s response to critics who have raised privacy concerns about the service.

The tax agency launched the Direct File service in January on an extremely limited basis to make sure its online systems were up to the task. That changed Monday, when the IRS announced that Direct File was available to all taxpayers in California, Arizona, Nevada and nine other states.

Think of Direct File as the IRS’ alternative to the free online tax-filing programs from TurboTax and H&R Block. It provides step-by-step guidance for filling out your tax forms, filing them and either paying any amount you might owe or collecting your refund.

The program’s question-and-answer approach means you won’t have to know which forms to fill out or where on the forms to enter your information. Instead, the program will handle those details for you.

The IRS already works with several tax-prep companies to offer lower-income taxpayers a free online tax return service called Free File. What makes Direct File different is that there’s no middleman and no income limit for participants — anyone can use it, provided that their tax returns use only the most basic forms.

Specifically, the program will work only for taxpayers whose income is limited to wages reported on a W-2, retirement benefits from Social Security or the Railroad Retirement Board, unemployment benefits or interest income of $1,500 or less. That means if you’re a self-employed person, a business owner, a contractor or a gig worker, or if you have income from a partnership or trust, Direct File isn’t for you.

The Treasury Department estimates that 19 million people in the 12 participating states are eligible to use Direct File this year and that several hundred thousand people will do so.

Direct File also allows you to claim only a truncated list of credits and deductions: the Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers, the credits for children and other dependents, the standard deduction and deductions for student loan interest payments and educators’ classroom and professional development expenses. If you’re able to claim other credits and deductions, such as those for foreign taxes paid, child care or retirement savings, or if you cut your tax bill by itemizing deductions (for example, if you have sizable medical expenses), Direct File would not be a good choice for you.

One other caution: The IRS says Direct File will be available only until April 15, when most Californians’ 2023 returns are due. The agency pushed the deadline for taxpayers in San Diego County back to June 17 in response to the federal disaster declaration in that county.

Direct File runs online only; you’ll need a smartphone, tablet or computer to access it. And to get started, you’ll need to prove to the IRS that you are who you say you are.

The only way to do that this year will be to use the identity verification service ID.me, which takes a scan of your government-issued picture ID, such as your driver’s license or passport, then uses facial-recognition software to match your image from a live chat session or a new selfie against the stored photo. While ID.me has raised concerns among some critics, who say it poses too great a threat to privacy and security, the company says it provides data only to agencies seeking to verify an individual’s identity with explicit user consent, making it compliant with the highest federal standards for identity verification and sign-in services.

Once you’ve established your identity, the program will check your eligibility, then guide you as you enter information about your income, credits and deductions. You don’t need to download any software, the IRS said; instead, your entries will be saved online, and you’ll be able to pause and resume later without having to start over.

Direct File has a live chat feature to help taxpayers with questions, but it’s not a source of free tax advice.

“IRS customer service representatives can provide technical support and provide basic clarification of tax law related to the tax scope of Direct File,” the agency said in a release. “Questions related to issues other than Direct File will be routed to other IRS customer support, as appropriate.”

The Direct File service hasn’t been integrated into California’s tax filing system yet, so you won’t be able to transfer your federal information seamlessly to your state return. The state Franchise Tax Board offers a free online return filing system called CalFile whose restrictions are similar to those in Direct File, so if you’re eligible for the latter, you’re probably able to use the former.

If you’re entitled to a refund, tax experts say, you should file your return as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re just making an interest-free loan to the federal government.



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