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TurboTax?? Fuhgeddaboudit!!

Why does the tax-prep software industry exert such control over its industry when I find its products so needlessly hard to use?

By Michael J. Flack

I find the Mafia fascinating and have therefore seen all the classics: "Goodfellas," "The Godfather" and "The Godfather II" (the less said about version "tre," the better). "Donnie Brasco," while not a classic, is probably the most realistic, with "A Bronx Tale" being the most underrated.

A man throwing up his hand while working on turbotax on his computer. Next Avenue
"While I'm not an I.T. genius, it can't be that difficult for the IRS to build a website that allows taxpayers to file their taxes directly, efficiently and without charge."  |  Credit: Getty

My fascination may very well have to do with being a nearby native New Yorker, with a personal "connection" to La Cosa Nostra.

My run in with the Mafia occurred back in the '70s. I was about 10 years old and remember watching our garbage cans being quickly and ably emptied into the back of a garbage truck by numerous members of Long Island's "waste management" industry. My father causally mentioned to me that it was all run by the Mafia.

Why Doing My Taxes Reminds Me of Garbage

He wasn't at all bothered by it, possibly because that was just the way it was back then, though more likely due to the efficiency of the operation, as he specifically mentioned that the company that removed our garbage three times a week did a very good job.

Tax forms like W-2s, 1099s and K-1s are standardized, so why can't TurboTax allow me to enter them on an identically looking screen?

Last spring I ran into a very similar situation, except that instead of having my garbage removed, I was doing my taxes, and instead of dealing with the Gambinos, I was dealing with TurboTax.

Much like Long Island municipal governments contracting out waste removal instead of using civil servants, the U.S. government contracts out tax preparation to the tax preparation Mafia. It's all the same, with the likes of Block, TurboTax, Liberty Tax, TaxAct, and Hewitt replacing the Five Families.

And much like my father's indifference, it wouldn't be an issue if TurboTax just did a better job. How could they improve?

1. Have Online Forms Match Paper Versions

Data entry is so incredibly laborious — you'd think it was a union shop, with a heavy dose of no-show jobs. Tax forms like W-2s, 1099s and K-1s are standardized, so why can't TurboTax allow me to enter them on an identically looking screen? Instead, I need to enter them on multiple screens, scrolling down on every single one of them.

Each Form K-1, for my master limited partnerships, requires over 50 mouse clicks and more than 20 screens, with many of them asking unanswerable questions like "Enter the dollar amount of the adjusted gain or loss reported on box 17, Code B of your K-1. . . ."

It's as if TurboTax studied how to make data entry as cumbersome and lengthy as possible, possibly in cahoots with the leadership of the orthopedic surgeons' union.

2. Make Calculations Transparent

The amount owed changes and you have no idea why. I've always been bothered that TurboTax doesn't provide at least a modicum of tax analysis, and instead just changes the refund amount like the reels on a Mafia controlled Las Vegas slot machine whenever you enter another number.

Prior to the personal computer, you had only two options when filing your taxes. You either took your shoebox full of receipts, W-2s and 1099s to your accountant or you got out your pencil, calculator and IRS instructions and got to it.

Note that I said pencil. You knew mistakes would be made, but that when it was all said and done you would be thoroughly familiar with each and every number. Now you have to accept TurboTax's verdict with only the most cursory accounting of how it was rendered.

3. Fix Oversights and Errors Immediately

Just prior to filing my return, TurboTax runs an "Error Check" which always finds errors like missing state names, addresses, numbers, etc. Why don't they just ask me to enter the information in the first place and not let me hit the "Continue" button until all the required information is entered?


4. Show Forms Before They're Filed

Except for a bastardized 1040, it won't let me see any form before I file, which makes it impossible to understand how, say, my foreign tax credit is computed or if all of my deductions are allowed.

After you click the "File" button you can then print out your return and then review your forms. If you find an issue you can then trick the system into letting you make corrections before you click the "File" Button again. Risciacqua e ripeti.

5. Make It Easy to Check Entries as You Go

Want to review all the numbers you entered for accuracy and completeness? Well, you either need to print out your forms after you "File" or go back and review every single data entry screen, one . . . by . . . one. Like youz was enterin' dem from scratch.

6. Speed Up the Electronic Filing Process

To makes filing easier and a little less stressful this year, for the first time I decided to e-file my federal and state taxes. Both were submitted (I'm ashamed to admit) on April 18, with the Fed going smoothly enough with an email from the IRS arriving 37 minutes later confirming acceptance.

Unfortunately, my state return took a further 26 hours to be "Accepted." Let's just say those hours were not as stress-free as I would have liked.

I'm certainly not blaming TurboTax for this 26-hour delay, but when I subsequently determined that this is not unusual, I thought, why couldn't they have provided a modicum of warning and explanation.

Why Do We Tolerate This?

You would think that TurboTax would realize that after their customers finish their taxes, and make an ever increasing annual payment, they want it all to just be finito. A feeling that customers must have after making a final payment to their loan shark.

"Fuhgeddaboudit" highway sign. Next Avenue, turbotax
Credit: Daniel Schwen

While I'm not an I.T. genius, it can't be that difficult for the IRS to build a website that allows taxpayers to file their taxes directly, efficiently and without charge. Then why do I still need to use a middleman? While some may blame the deep state, I'm pretty sure TurboTax wise guys, I mean lobbyists, are to blame.

I'm hopeful that in the very near future Amazon will get into the tax preparation business. While I'd rather not risk having my taxes done in a Chinese factory with no emergency exits, at least I know they will provide me with a first-class website that is efficient, businesslike and organized, as I'd expect nothing less from Don Bezos.

Michael J. Flack
Michael J. Flack is a retired businessman. His New York upbringing and naval nuclear engineering training enables him to bring some skepticism and humor to the subject of personal finance. He is a contributor to the book "My Money Journey: How 30 People Found Financial Freedom — and You Can, Too." Read More
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