- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Less than three months remain until April 15, and last Friday, the Internal Revenue Service declared its electronic filing system “open for business,” allowing taxpayers the chance to get their refunds quicker. If you’re receiving W-2 forms and other statements in your mailbox, you might be itching to begin.

It’s been a few years since I’ve examined the options for preparing tax returns, and electronic filing has grown up quite a bit. According to the IRS, “approximately 70 percent of the nation’s taxpayers, some 98 million people who meet the $57,000 income limit, are eligible for the user-friendly Traditional Free File [service],” which the agency says “provides step-by-step software help that asks simple questions and puts the answers on the correct tax forms.”

For the rest of us, services such as Intuit’s TurboTax (www.turbotax.com) and CompleteTax (www.completetax.com) from CCH (formerly known as Commerce Clearing House), as well as H&R Block’s “At Home” online service, are among the top options. I’ve tested the Intuit and CompleteTax online services so far; H&R Block’s products, which include software as well as online services, will get a separate workout shortly.

While it may seem a bit daunting to enter all your data online and hope for the best, it appears that the online services are quite good. If you don’t qualify for the “free” online prep, you can pay for various services, from “basic” to “professional” with prices ranging from $15 to $50. State returns are extra, usually about $25.

One advantage of the online services is that they should work with all computing platforms, Windows, Mac or Linux. Another is that you could start things on your lunch hour at work and finish up at home, or vice versa. A third is handy electronic filing, although the software-based programs should offer that as well.

Of the two systems tested so far, TurboTax Online offers the more sophisticated online interface. It includes lots of graphics, animation-style features, and a friendly mien that is very inviting. The tax “interview” is relaxed, and while taxes aren’t always the most pleasant thing in the world, this is a nice way to prepare it.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the TurboTax Online experience is that the physical layout of the screen was a bit easier on the eyes than the CCH/Complete Tax screen. Numbers were easier to read on TurboTax, and instructions were very clear.

On the other hand, Complete Tax was, well, more complete than TurboTax. It guided me to the forms for Schedule C deductions more easily than TurboTax did; with the latter, even after an “upgrade” to the “Home & Business” version, I had to manually dig through the Web site to get all the deductions in.

There was another key difference, although I did not go through each return line-by-line to see why: the Complete Tax returns gave me about $1,000 more in refunds than did the TurboTax-prepared returns. I can’t swear which system is more correct, and there’s a chance I made a mistake with one or the other program that swayed the total, but that’s a lot of money, either way.

For me, at least, this will require more investigation and examination. I might well end up going to a tax preparer this year and letting them sign on to the process. But I could end up going with an online system, especially if H&R Block’s program comes down closer to one of the other results.

My advice would be to try both systems: You can create an account and enter data for free; payment is required to e-file and/or print your return — and see which you enjoy better. TurboTax is certainly a well-regarded name, but Complete Tax is quite good as well, and it gave me a higher refund calculation.

Send e-mail to mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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