By OSU Extension Service
The 2012 tax filing season opened Jan. 17, so if you have not started yet, it is time to gather up all those receipts and other tax documentation. Last year, 77 percent of all individual tax returns were e-filed as opposed to filling out the paper forms and mailing them to the Internal Revenue Service. That is more than 112 million returns done online.
Just a reminder, the IRS no longer mails paper tax forms or instructions. If a person wants them, they will have to go online to http://www.irs.gov  or visit a local IRS office. There are several e-filing options available to taxpayers.
Eileen St. Pierre, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension personal finance specialist, said for those with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $57,000 or less, the IRS offers a special Free File program.
“Free software is provided by the members of the Free File Alliance, a consortium of about 15 tax preparatory firms including H&R Block and Turbo Tax,” St. Pierre said. “You don’t actually have to download the software; instead you are linked securely to their site. The software will take you step-by-step through the process, building your return based on your answers to specific questions.”
If you qualify for this program, choose a provider from the list that also offers free e-filing of your state return. A list of providers and their eligibility criteria can be found at http://apps.irs.gov/app/freeFile/jsp/index.jsp .
Another e-filing option is to use online fillable forms which are electronic versions of the IRS paper forms. The forms can then be e-filed for free using the Free File program. Anyone can use these forms, regardless of your AGI.
St. Pierre said this option is good for those who want to fill out the forms themselves, but get their refunds faster. However, this system does not support state tax returns and only does basic calculations.
To use this option, visit https://www.freefilefillableforms.com  to get started.
If you don’t qualify for the Free File program, but want to use software to prepare your tax return, you can always buy your own software or pay to use a vendor’s secure site. Make sure you e-file through the software vendor’s secure channel.
“Finally, you can e-file through a paid tax preparer. All tax preparers are required by law to e-file if the preparer expects to file more than ten returns in a calendar year,” she said. “Always remember that you are ultimately held responsible by the IRS for what is on your tax return – ignorance is not a defense.”
Regardless of what option you choose, e-filed returns must have an electronic signature.
“You will need to create a 5-digit PIN number, which you will continue to use in future years,” St. Pierre said. “If you are married filing a joint return, both spouses must create their own PIN numbers. However, your AGI from your 2010 return can also be used to verify your identity.”
For those who have forgotten their PIN numbers, visit http://www.irs.gov  and select Electronic Filing PIN under the Tools section.
This year, the tax filing deadline is April 17. If you choose direct deposit, you should receive your refund in ten days provided there are no errors. Taxpayers can direct deposit their refunds in up to three separate accounts and directly purchase U.S. savings bonds (see Form 8888).
“There are now more options available to taxpayers to encourage them to save more of their tax refunds. Take advantage of these opportunities to build your emergency savings account, increase your retirement nest egg or start a college fund,” St. Pierre said.