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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 10, 2001

Tax-preparation software can be relatively uncomplicated

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Every year around this time, my husband turns our bed into a desktop. The W-2 forms up here on the pillow, the bank account statements down there by the foot, piles of receipts in various categories somewhere in between. Since he does the taxes, he can make a mess anywhere he pleases.

This is the place to mess, though: The other desktop, our trusty PC, sits right by the bed. Back in the dark ages, when he did this chore in low-tech fashion, all the battle flak – cannonballs of wadded-up scratch paper, broken pencils and such – used to litter our dining-room table.

But in the last six years or so he's taken the electronic route, most of those years with the top-selling TurboTax software. He made the leap the year after he hired a tax-preparer, who (nice as she was) messed up and drew the wrath of the IRS down on our heads. My husband figured he could do just as well, especially in this technological age. And I tell him I have complete faith in him (flattery is a small price to pay for ducking this chore).

The first year of do-it-yourself, computer-assisted form-filling, he said, is the most taxing. There's a lot of the basic information to enter, but once you do that, you can import the data in successive years.

There's also the advantage of using the same data for state tax forms. TurboTax (or any program like it) removes the irritant of repeating the whole process with forms that are virtually identical.

The conveniences are self-evident, among them never having to set foot in a tax office to pick up a missing form, never having to do your own mind-numbing calculations.

TurboTax Deluxe comes with video tutorials, starring some comfortingly buttoned-down type, to explain various tax quirks. A favorite feature: the "what-if" queries, where you can try out different legal filing strategies and see which will cost you less in taxes, all without having to wad up excessive amounts of scratch paper.

After you go through this a time or two, my mate confessed, he could probably do with less hand-holding and buy the lower-priced versions of the software (TurboTax Yer-On-Yer-Own Edition). But, being a creature of comfort, he still buys the software fully loaded. You never know.

Are there any down sides? "Not that I can think of," he said. "But you do have to trust the software."

Later the same day that he told me this, we glimpsed one potential drawback of tax preparation via Cyber H&R Block: a curt dispatch from the IRS office, telling us we erred in 1999 tax returns to the tune of $900.

"You see?" he fumed. "This is why it sometimes helps to have a professional doing this. I don't know the tax laws. I just do what the software tells me."

When he calmed down, he realized the probable cause: He'd been hired for a free-lance job, and the accountant for that employer filed two forms for the same job, leading our friendly tax collectors to think he'd been paid twice as much as he had.

Luckily, he'd kept all the paper evidence and even tracked down that accountant by phone, who vowed to file an amendment. That left my husband with the task of composing the requisite letter to the IRS.

"How about this," he said, his voice taking on the tone of an executive giving dictation. "'Your conclusion is INCORRECT, because it's based on information that is FALSE!'"

"I'd better write the letter," I told him. (It's sometimes helpful to have a writer in the family, as well as a tax preparer.)

It's still possible that the software gave him bum advice on which form to file; we're not sure. But my husband remains in the camp of TurboTax supporters, which perhaps isn't surprising, considering he's been an official computer geek for 20 years. (Remember the Commodore Vic 20? Our first baby.)

But here's the funny part: At the end of the tax preparation, he still prints out the forms and mails them in, just the way Americans have done for generations. Filing forms via Internet, he said, doesn't cut it.

E-filing's supposed to get you your refund quicker, but since we don't get a refund, most years, where's the benefit to us?

"Also," he said, "partly it's a security thing. I don't want some computer geek in Idaho reading my stuff."

But that's not the main reason, he admitted.

"I want the IRS to work a little bit," he said with a grin. "Why should I make it easier on them?"

Surely the IRS will understand such an all-American sentiment. And even if they don't, my husband is somewhat shielded by having a wife who may be a tattletale journalist but at least writes under her maiden name.

Advertiser staff writer Vicki Viotti can be e-mailed, vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com, or phoned at 525-8053.