The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance said Monday it has begun issuing the first income tax refunds of 2014 for taxpayers who used an online free tax service.

Each of the 87 refunds totaling more than $15,000 were direct deposited into taxpayer bank accounts. The average refund was $183, and they range up to $1,356.     

Each of the taxpayers used the Empire State's new Income Tax Web File, which enables state tax returns to be prepared and e-filed earlier than ever and at no cost. As a result of Web File and other free tax preparation options, the department said that more than 85 percent of New Yorkers can now prepare and file their state taxes for free.

“By adding Web File to our array of more than 60 online services, we are making free income tax preparation more accessible than ever before,” said Commissioner of Taxation and Finance Thomas H. Mattox in a statement. “If you’re in the 10 percent who filed paper returns last year, visit our Web site to learn about the new free e-file options available to you. E-filing is safer, faster and more accurate than paper filing – and you’ll get your refund at least twice as fast.”

The department pointed out that the average refund for an e-filed return is issued in 21 days, whereas paper filers should expect their refund in 8 to 12 weeks. Electronically filed returns are submitted through a secure, encrypted system to prevent data access.

To receive refunds faster, taxpayers should have them directly deposited into their bank accounts, the department noted. Refunds via debit cards also are available, particularly for taxpayers without bank accounts.

The department kicked off tax filing season last Thursday through the Web site, which will allow an estimated 85 percent of taxpayers in New York State to electronically file their state tax returns for free.

Taxpayers can probably qualify for the service if they were a full-year New York State resident in 2013; and are not claiming any credits other than the New York State household credit, real property tax credit, New York City school tax credit and New York City household credit.

The Internal Revenue Service has postponed the start of tax season for individual federal tax returns until January 31 as a result of delays stemming from last October’s two-week government shutdown (see IRS Kicks Off Free File Before Tax Season Opens for Preparers). However, the Free File service began accepting tax returns from taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $58,000 or less on January 17. But the tax software vendors who are part of the Free File Alliance are not going to transmit them to the IRS until January 31.