walmart_2.jpgNEW YORK (AP) — Free preparation of simple tax forms is being made available at more than 3,000 Wal-Mart Stores nationwide. The nation's largest retailer has contracted with the top two tax prep companies, H&R Block Inc. and Jackson-Hewitt Tax Service Inc., to set up kiosks inside its stores where customers can have their tax returns completed by trained preparers.

As it is doing in its own retail locations nationwide, H&R Block will offer free preparation of 1040EZ forms at Wal-Mart through Feb. 29. Block will have kiosks in about 250 Wal-Mart stores.

It's the second year Block is offering free simple tax prep. The company, based in Kansas City, Mo., has shifted strategies to retain market share after struggling for several years and the free preparations are one of its tactics to get people in the door.

Jackson-Hewitt will provide free prep of the simple forms throughout the tax season at about 2,800 Wal-Mart stores, up from 2,000 last year. A spokesman said some of its retail outlets may also offer free 1040EZ prep but doing so is not companywide policy.

About 39 percent of the total 133 million individual returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service last year were submitted before the end of February.

Early filers usually expect a refund. The average refund last year was $2,805, down 2.6 percent from $2,880 in 2010.

Customers who have their taxes prepared at Wal-Mart will have the usual options for receiving a refund: direct deposit into a bank account or to a prepaid card or a mailed check.

The IRS has promoted direct deposit in the past few years as a safer, faster alternative. Combined with returns filed electronically, refunds can be delivered in 10 days or less using direct deposit. Checks may take several weeks.

Last year, about 74 percent of refunds were sent via direct deposit.

Wal-Mart, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt all offer prepaid cards that can be credited with the tax refund at no cost for customers who do not have bank accounts. The cards have some fees associated with using them, although Wal-Mart waives fees for customers who have at least $1,000 loaded onto a card in a given month.

Wal-Mart also provides low-cost check cashing for those customers who receive mailed refunds.  The retailer charges $3 to cash checks up to $1,000 and $6 for checks between $1,000 and $7,500.

That's far less than the typical amount charged at a check-cashing outlet, which often takes as much as 3 percent of a check, or $75 for a refund of $2,805.