ProPublica has reported extensively about taxes, the IRS Free File program and the IRS. Specifically, the ways in which the for-profit tax preparation industry — companies like Intuit (TurboTax), H&R Block and Tax Slayer — has lobbied for the Free File program, then systematically undermined it with evasive search tactics and confusing design. These companies also work to fill search engine results with tax “guides” that sometimes route users to paid products.
Under the Free File agreement, Americans who make less than $73,000 per year should be able to file their taxes for free with one of the tax preparation companies that partners with the IRS. But this program has been historically underutilized, with just 4% of eligible Americans filing for free in 2021.
The story of the Free File program is long and twisting, and it can seem more like a fight against free tax filing than a fight for it. One of the biggest players is Intuit, the maker of TurboTax, one of the largest tax preparation software companies in the country.
ProPublica has reported on Intuit and the Free File program since 2013. Here’s what we’ve found.
The Truth About TurboTax
In 2002, Intuit, H&R Block and other tax prep companies signed a deal with the IRS to provide free tax filing services to millions of Americans. In return, the IRS agreed it would not create its own tax filing system that could compete with the tax prep companies.
A government-run tax filing system, often known as return-free filing, is already a reality in many countries around the world. With a return-free filing system, the government fills out the tax forms with the information it already has, and taxpayers simply have to review the forms for accuracy. This is not the case in the U.S.
Switching to such a system would devastate tax prep company profits. That’s why Intuit and other members of the industry spent millions through the years lobbying to preserve the Free File agreement, particularly the part that restricts the IRS from creating its own free filing system.
That’s not all Intuit did to limit the scope of Free File. Intuit purposefully suppressed its own Free File product. It added website code to block its Free File page from showing up in search engines and used manipulative marketing patterns to trick customers into paying for TurboTax even when they qualified for Free File. It later removed the code.
Internal documents previously obtained by ProPublica show these strategies were intentional on the part of Intuit and H&R Block.
ProPublica’s Reporting Impact
As ProPublica reported on Intuit and the Free File program, government officials took note.
When ProPublica pointed out that codifying the existing Free File agreement into law would permanently bar the IRS from creating its own free filing system, the bill got new scrutiny in Congress and the restriction on an IRS-created filing system was scrapped.
Senior IRS leadership and a New York state regulator began investigating Intuit and the Free File program. The Federal Trade Commission started investigating Intuit too, looking into the company’s allegedly deceptive marketing practices.
Ultimately, Intuit was found to have tricked millions of Americans into paying to file their taxes when they should have been able to do so for free. The company reached a $141 million dollar settlement in May 2022 in a case led by New York Attorney General Letitia James and covering all 50 states and the District of Columbia. (Intuit did not admit any wrongdoing in the settlement.) More than 4 million people are expected to receive money as part of the settlement. It’s not clear when the payments will be made.
The Current State of Free File
Following ProPublica’s reporting in 2019, the IRS reformed the Free File program. It barred companies from using deceptive practices to deter taxpayers from using Free File and removed the prohibition on the IRS creating its own tax filing system.
Intuit left the Free File program in October 2021, citing a desire to innovate beyond what the agreement would allow. In March 2022, during the first tax season in which TurboTax did not participate in the Free File program, the FTC sued Intuit over deceptive ads for its so-called “Free” edition. Intuit disputed the FTC’s arguments but agreed to pull the ads in question for the remainder of tax season.
After both Intuit and H&R Block left the Free File program, the future of the program was unclear. It’s still difficult to find truly free tax filing options. The IRS created a tool to help you find this year’s Free File options.
More changes may be on the horizon for Free File. In August 2022, IRS received a mandate to look into creating a public filing system, with $15 million allocated to the study.