You may recall that, two years ago, I decided to switch from the old pencil-and-paper method I'd always used for our taxes (and my own before that) to an online tax prep service called TaxAct. So I figured that, once I finally got the last piece of paperwork I'd been waiting for to get started on our tax return for 2015, all I'd have to do is log into TaxAct and click through maybe half an hour's worth of questions to get this puppy filed.
That turned out to be wrong in a couple of different ways. First, once I logged into TaxAct, it took me longer than I expected just to enter all the information from Brian's W-2 and from our investment accounts (which are a little more complicated this year because we now have some foreign stocks in the mix). But the real problem was that once I got to the question, "Did you have business income for 2015?" and clicked on "Yes," the site told me that in that case, I wouldn't be able to use the free version of the program; I'd have to upgrade to the third-tier "Plus" version, which costs $20. It didn't mention that this was for the federal return only, but it only took me a few clicks to figure out that if I went through with this upgrade, I'd have to pay an extra $20 to file my state return. So instead of paying just $15 for both federal and state returns like I did last year, I'd now be out a total of $40.
Well, that really got my knickers in a twist. It wasn't so much the change in the pricing structure I minded, since I could always just go back to doing things the old, free, slightly slower way; it was the fact that TaxAct didn't bother to tell me about it until I'd already wasted an hour going through their system, which I now wasn't going to be able to use. The free version had always covered my freelance income before, so having that suddenly yanked away with no warning felt like a bait-and-switch to me.
So, in a huff, I logged out of TaxAct and clicked over to the IRS site, where my trusty old Free Fillable forms were still waiting for me. And as it turned out, filling out the federal return with these forms wasn't hard at all; in fact, it was probably a bit less time-consuming than the same process on TaxAct, because I wasn't being interrupted every five minutes by an ad urging me to upgrade to a pricier version of the software. So I managed to get through that process in an hour or so and sent the forms winging across the Web toward Washington.
Then I moved on to the state return. When I visited the NJ Division of Taxation, I actually got a pleasant surprise to start with: it turns out that the state of New Jersey has finally entered the 21st century and started offering a free e-filing option, "NJ Fill'nFile." So this year, I wouldn't have to go through all the rigmarole of filling out the forms on screen, printing them out, and taking them to the post office to send via snail mail.
However, this system is still fairly new, and it appears there are still a few bugs in it. Not major ones, just little annoying things, like:
- You can't start a new return without providing a cell phone number. If you don't have a cell phone, apparently, you aren't allowed to file your taxes online. (I just gave them our landline phone number, since that's the phone we actually use, and I figured it was unlikely they'd actually check and reject our tax return on the grounds that it wasn't a real cell number.)
- The form can only accept a limited number of characters in each field. For instance, on the line where you enter your name, it said to provide a first name and middle initial for each filer, and enter both last names only if they're different—but when I tried to do that, I discovered that I didn't have enough space to enter "Livingston, Amy R and Hudson, Brian P." I had to replace the "and" with an ampersand to squeeze both our full names in. And on the section where I had to copy in the information from Brian's W-2 form, there wasn't enough room to enter the full "state ID number" as Rutgers had provided it. I had to leave off the three zeroes on the end of the number they gave us and hope that they weren't important.
- When you go to file the return, the website reminds you to attach any additional forms that are required before submitting the 1040—but it doesn't tell you how to do this. You have to examine the 1040 form itself and find a button squirreled away at the top that says "add attachments" and use this to stick on your Schedule A or whatever else you need. In my case, I ended up needing to attach my entire federal return, because I had to provide copies of Schedule B and Schedule C, and I couldn't figure out a way to pull those individual pages out of the federal return and attach them separately.
So on the whole, I'd have to say that for people whose tax situation is similar to ours—complicated enough to require the full 1040 form, with maybe three or four supporting forms, but not a whole thick wad of them—the free fill-in forms are now the best way to do your taxes. They don't do all the math for you, but they do most of the calculations where you'd be at risk of making a mistake; there's no need to mess around with paper and stamps; and you can send the form off immediately and receive your tax refund, if you're getting one, in the shortest possible time. Plus, they're genuinely free, with no hidden fees or upselling involved.
For those who have a really simple tax return—simple enough to use the 1040E-Z, or possibly the 1040A with no business income—using the free version of TaxAct might still be simpler, especially since you can now get both federal and state returns for free. (On the other hand, if your taxes are that simple, filling out the forms yourself won't take that long either, and you won't have to deal with the repeated sales pitches.) And for those with a really complex return, it's probably worth shelling out for some real tax software, or even hiring a CPA. (If your taxes are that complicated, chances are you can afford it.) But for those of us stuck here in the middle, I think the free forms offer the best balance of convenience (moderate) and cost (none).