Beginning today,  you can prepare and e-file federal tax returns for free through the IRS Free File online program, as long as your income is below a specified level. All the details, requirements, and link are inside.

This year, the program will be open to taxpayers with 2010 adjusted gross income of $58,000 or less, according to IRS senior executive David Williams.

Free File is a partnership between the IRS and private tax software providers that's designed to encourage more taxpayers to file returns electronically. Last year, 70% of individual tax returns were filed electronically, up from 51% in 2005.

This year, 17 private companies and one non-profit will offer tax-preparation programs through Free File. It's available at

Taxpayers who earn too much to qualify for Free File will have another option: Free File Fillable. This program has no income restrictions and provides electronic versions of IRS tax forms that taxpayers can use to file their returns. The program will do the math for users, but doesn't offer the kind of guidance taxpayers get from most tax software programs.

Williams says the Free File program, first offered in 2003, has encouraged tax software providers to offer other free programs for taxpayers who don't qualify for Free File.

Separately, Treasury announced Thursday that it has launched a pilot program that will allow low-income taxpayers to have their federal tax refunds delivered electronically to a prepaid card. The goal of the program is to reduce the cost of mailing out paper refund checks and provide taxpayers who don't have bank accounts with a way to get their refunds quickly.

The MyAccountCard Visa prepaid card will be managed by Green Dot, a major issuer of prepaid cards. The 600,000 taxpayers selected for the pilot program will receive a letter from Treasury next week explaining how to sign up for the card.

Consumer advocates said the initiative could dissuade low-income taxpayers from using costly refund-anticipation loans. Taxpayers who file their tax returns electronically and arrange for direct deposit can get their refunds in as little as 10 days, vs. several weeks for a paper-filed return, Williams says.