Jackson Hewitt Online launches $25 flat fee; others pitch free

Do-it-yourself types who are looking for a deal for online tax preparation are seeing plenty of promotions.

It's a marketing battle of the free online tax deals among some big names. But you're going to need to review the restrictions and rules to figure out just what deal actually saves you money and what doesn't.

Gig workers or self-employed workers, for example, often don't qualify for free services and can be directed to higher cost online options at places like TurboTax, H&R Block and TaxAct.

Meanwhile, Jackson Hewitt is throwing up its hands, dropping all the "free" offerings and charging one flat rate to everyone in the name of simplicity.

A $25 flat rate

Jackson Hewitt Tax Services is rolling out a $25 flat rate if you do your taxes — federal and state — online. The fee covers both state and federal, and as many state returns as needed. If you need to file multiple state returns, you'd still pay one flat fee.

The price is cut nearly in half for many tax filers who file a federal and a state return.

A year ago, Jackson Hewitt charged $25 for federal returns plus another $24 for state returns. The $49 price tag covered as many state returns as necessary.

Given that inflation has many consumers fearing higher prices ahead, Jackson Hewitt Online is promoting a three-year, $25 price lock for all customers who file their 2021 filing with the company.

File this year for $25 and you'd be able to pay $25 at Jackson Hewitt Online and file the 2022 return next year. And you could do the same for $25 when you file the the 2023 return in 2024.

It's time to start thinking about gathering data to file your 2021 tax return.
It's time to start thinking about gathering data to file your 2021 tax return.

Zach Cohen, head of digital products for Jackson Hewitt, said going with one flat price gives consumers the reassurance that they won't be charged more than expected.

"Really, the online tax preparation market has tried to gamify pricing," he said. "But taxes aren't a game."

Anyone who does a quick internet search for online tax filing, Cohen said, will see that almost every single listing says "Free."

"Yet only a very limited number of online filers actually get free tax prep," Cohen told me in a phone interview.

"Companies broadcast free upfront but then they force people to upgrade as they get deeper into the process of preparing the taxes."

The actual price tag for some consumers who go online to use software to prepare their own taxes can end up being $75 to $125 or more, Cohen said.

"It's absurd," Cohen said. "And we decided to take a stand."

More: Want to file your tax return for free? TurboTax opts out of major program

While many may be happy with a low price guarantee, some who once benefited from free tax software services at Jackson Hewitt might not be thrilled at the standard pricing.

Cohen said the company's research found a pretty limited subset of people actually qualify for free. But he acknowledged that if people are really​ eligible for free, they should use a service that allows them to prepare a return and file it for free.

Before making such a move, he said a taxpayer needs to consider that their tax profile may become more complicated in the near future — such as returns involving online brokerage accounts, a first home, and freelance income.

"And that could very likely lead to them being upgraded to a paid tier" at other firms, he said.

Jackson Hewitt Online maintains that a $25 price guarantee for online tax preparations in future years is a better option for many consumers.

"In our experience, people understand tax prep software has value and are willing to pay reasonable prices for it," Cohen said.

And there's the convenience factor of working with the same company or the same online software brand.

Free is still out there

Jackson Hewitt's pricing goes against some marketing campaigns that push free services. Big names — including TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct — continue to offer some online free services.

TurboTax announced a new "$0 Any Way" offer, which the company said will apply to about 60 million filers with a simple tax return. There are no income restrictions.

Last tax season, the company said, more than 17 million people filed their taxes with TurboTax and paid nothing, which was more people than in any year in company history.

This year, TurboTax said it is expanding its free offer, allowing filers with simple returns to file completely free of charge using its different services.

TurboTax said it gives taxpayers with a simple return the choice to do their taxes themselves, get help from a tax expert along the way, or hand it off to a dedicated tax expert to do their taxes for them, for $0.

Filers have a Feb. 15 deadline to use the TurboTax Live Full Service Basic to file a simple return for free. This product allows you to hand over your return, completely, to a tax expert.

Tax filers using TurboTax Live Basic to file a simple return would pay nothing if they file through March 31. This product offers help from a tax expert along the way.

TurboTax Free Edition is available the entire season.

Who has a simple return? According to TurboTax, it's a taxpayer who is filing only a Form 1040. TurboTax Free Edition, TurboTax Live Basic, and TurboTax Live Full Service Basic help tax filers whose tax situations can include W-2 income, limited interest and dividend income, opting to take the standard deduction, as well as those who claim the earned income tax credit, child tax credit, and report student loan interest.

What are some restrictions?

Before you assume that you'd be able to file your tax return for free, check out what restrictions apply online.

Many times, you're not going to be able to use free tax software online if you've sold stock, sold your home, had mortgage interest, paid real estate taxes or have freelance income.

TurboTax says that situations not covered by TurboTax Free Edition, TurboTax Live Basic, and TurboTax Live Full Service Basic include returns that opt for itemized deductions, report unemployment income reported on a 1099-G, report business or 1099-NEC income, include stock sales, rental property income and credits, and report deductions and income reported on schedules 1-3.

If you own a small business, for example, TurboTax is going to recommend that you opt for its service for "self-employed" that is priced at $119. The filing of a state return cost an extra $49 per state. The software for self-employed searches for more than 500 deductions and credits.

Some offers might work better for one person than another.

H&R Block is advertising on TV this season that more people can file for free with them than TurboTax.

H&R Block told the Free Press that it offers more forms under its free filing offerings than TurboTax, including Form 1099-G unemployment income, Form 8863 education credits, Form 1098-T tuition payment, Form 8615 involving the tax for children who have investment income of more than $1,900, the Schedule R credit for elderly or disabled filers, Form 1099-G for certain government payments, and Form 8915-F for the Qualified 2021 disaster retirement plan distribution and repayments.

Tax filers need to review their tax situations and forms, as they try to find the best free services, too.

The "Free File" system at IRS.gov continues to remain an option for many people; again, it won't work for everyone. You'd have to pick a tax software provider that's participating in the system and would offer services for those in your situation. The Internal Revenue Service said 70% of the nation's filers are eligible for Free File.

If your adjusted gross income was $73,000 or less in 2021, you can use free tax software to prepare and e-file your tax return at IRS. gov.

Doing taxes is never really fun, but saving a bit more money along the way on tax prep can ease some of the pain.

Contact Susan Tompor: stompor@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @tompor. To subscribe, please go to freep.com/specialoffer. Read more on business and sign up for our business newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jackson Hewitt Online starts $25 flat fee; others pitch free tax prep