Productivity software

Online Taxes: Three Ways to Stay Out of Trouble

Tax preparation software, particularly the online variety, has gotten much better in recent years. It's no longer just a fancy spreadsheet. But even the very best online tax tools lack something that only a professional can offer, and that's judgment, says Stephen Moskowitz, a San Francisco tax attorney and accountant who has been practicing for more than 30 years.

"I have a self-employed client with not much business income. But using one of those programs (the attorney declined to state which one,) he deducted a huge number of business expenses. And now he's in serious trouble with the IRS," Moskowitz says. Looked at individually, the business deductions for the client made sense, he says. But in the aggregate, the out-of-whack ratio of revenue to expenses raised a red flag for the IRS.

"For many people, tax prep software makes sense," says Moskowitz. But there are a lot of grey areas and close calls that require judgment."

Of course, there's no guarantee that a human tax preparer would have cautioned the client, and the vast majority of people who use online packages never have a serious problem.

But with this cautionary note in mind, I've taken a look at three of the most widely used programs: HR Block at Home, Turbo Tax and TaxACT Online, and explored three areas that you must consider carefully.

Examine Data Import Capabilities

Unless you're about 18 years old, you've paid taxes in the past, and probably have some investments; so it makes sense for a program to help you import a variety of financial data.

All three programs let you import data from previous returns-if you've used the same program in the past. H&R Block At Home (which used to be called Tax Cut) does let you import data from rival Turbo Tax, but that's it.

If you've used another program, you've got to enter the old data manually. Neither Tax Cut nor TaxAct import data directly from the competition, although if your old return is available as a PDF file, TaxAct will cull data from it. (In some cases, old tax returns prepared in a desktop version of the software can not be imported into the online version.)

For that reason alone, it makes sense to stick with the program you've been using, unless you have a real reason to switch.

H&R Block only works with 6 major payroll providers to import W-2s and does not import data from individual firms. But one very helpful feature allows you to import data from a brokerage account. In just a few seconds it imported the year-end summary of my Morgan Stanley account, including interest, dividends and stock sales with the basis price and the sale price.

TurboTax, though, claims that it will import W-2 and 1099 data directly from over 100,000 participating employers and financial institutions. Since TurboTax and Quicken are both made by Intuit, moving data from the accounting package to the tax package is easy, so it makes sense to use them together.

The only W-2s TaxACT can import are electronic ones prepared by TALX W-2 eXpress, and it provides no support for institutional 1099s, which means lots of manual data entry.

Beware Ease of Use Glitches

Doing taxes is not a chore that you want to risk making even more unpleasant due to poorly designed software. Among these tools, there's not a lot of difference in ease of use; all have a Q&A type format that guides you through the process. All have reasonable help functions and TaxACT, the cheapest alternative, contains a number of videos that you might find helpful. All three ask you early on about major life changes, things like buying a home, starting college, getting married and so on, and then steer you to related questions and forms.

H&R Block does have one annoying feature; you can't skip ahead to look at other segments. When you ask the program why you can't, it says going out of order leads to mistakes. I'd like to make that decision for myself, thank you.

Turbo Tax will steer you to an online forum, a potentially helpful feature. But as a friend of mine who has used Turbo Tax for some time notes: "There are a lot of people asking the same questions you have, but not very many coming up with answers."

One more caveat: If you pick the free versions of these programs, you'll run into annoying, at times intrusive, attempts to tempt you into switching to a paid version.

When in Doubt, Seek Extra Help

Each of these packages allows users to contact live tax "professionals." I put professionals in quotation marks because their level of training, credentialing and expertise is unclear in some cases. Still, some live help is better than none, and in the case of Turbo Tax and H&R Block, buying an edition that offers that feature is probably a good idea if your financial picture is complex.

For $29.95 TurboTax users get a 20-minute phone call with one of the company's tax professionals. You will be charged $19.95 for each additional 20 minute time period. This is not for technical support, which is handled separately.

For the record, this is how the company describes its experts: "Our Tax Experts are highly qualified tax professionals with extensive knowledge in tax law and our TurboTax software. They are an experienced group of EAs (IRS-Enrolled Agents) and Tax Preparers with advanced education and experience in tax law, return preparation, or the tax industry."

H&R's Block's premium service, called "Best of Both" offers expert advice via telephone or email for no charge. But the program itself costs $79.95. The same professional will later review, correct and file your return. Customers who buy cheaper versions pay $19.95 for a consult.

TaxACT offers free expert help via email.

Pricing: TaxACT is available in three versions, priced at free, $9.95 and $17.95.

Turbo Tax offers four editions for individual tax payers or small business priced from free to $74.95, and an edition for corporations and partnerships at $129.95.

H&R Block at Home comes in four versions, priced from free to $79.95.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline.

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