While Arkansas state tax and federal returns are not due until April 15, we know thousands of Arkansans may be filing soon in anticipation of a refund. This year, the IRS will begin processing returns on Jan. 31. This is a later date than previous years due to the government shut down last fall.

We are constantly striving to simplify our state tax codes and reduce the tax burden on Arkansas families. However, we recognize the need many have for assistance in preparing their taxes and filing returns. This week, we would like to remind you about the free services offered to many Arkansans. We would also like to offer information for those who may be considering a refund anticipation loan or a refund anticipation check.

The Internal Revenue Service offers its Free File electronic tax filing program to all taxpayers. Those taxpayers who earned less than $58,000 in adjusted gross income in 2013 are eligible to receive free online filing help. More than a dozen commercial tax software companies have made their online assistance free through the Free File program. Visit www.irs.gov for more information.

Arkansans making less than $52,000 a year and members of the U.S. Armed Services are also eligible for free in-person tax filing assistance through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. VITA sites are typically located in community centers, libraries, and schools. You can find one near you by calling (800) 906-9887.

Arkansans over the age of 60 can find free assistance through the Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE) program. For those locations call (888) 227-7669.

If you are not eligible for free assistance, it is always best to get multiple estimates before choosing a service.

Until recently, many tax preparation services offered consumers a way to access their refunds in a matter of days through a refund anticipation loan (RAL).

These came at a high rate of interest. Consumers paid an estimated $46 million in RAL fees nationwide in 2011 to get quick cash for their refunds. Due to changes in the way the IRS processed information, many tax preparation service companies have stopped the practice. However, some are offering a refund anticipation check, which allows consumers to file without the upfront cost of the preparation fees. Extra fees are then taken out of the refund.

Before entering into an RAL or RAC agreement, consider that electronically filed returns can be deposited in your account in as few as eight days. And if you don’t have a bank account, the IRS can provide your refund by check or prepaid debit card.

The Arkansas Attorney General has more advice concerning tax preparation services on its consumer website at www.gotyourbackarkansas.org.