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Ask Slashdot: Open Source Tax Software? 387

Posted by timothy
from the enclose-a-stinkbug-with-each-envelope dept.
An anonymous reader writes "I finally started looking at my taxes and instead of handing over my personal information and money to TurboTax I was wondering if there were any recommendations for freely available/open source tax software? Ideally, the data would be stored in a portable, open format. I wouldn't really need a GUI, but something that filled out PDF forms would be nice." It's a question that just won't go away. Open source solution or not, if you're a U.S. taxpayer, the deadline for filing is nearly to hand.
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Ask Slashdot: Open Source Tax Software?

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  • by CoderExpert (2613949) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:24PM (#39632493)
    Seriously, this is the kind of product that is done with help of lawyers and accountants, because it is really complicated. Specialists rarely work for free with open source products. You really don't want some 18 year open source coder's "product" (who just filed his taxes for the first time and quickly coded up something) for this. They just don't understand all the different tax laws and practices, especially in some corner cases. And it is YOU who will be responsible when the program gets it wrong. Using open source instead of a program made by professionals with the help of accountants and tax professionals is incredibly stupid!
    • You make a good point, but if an open source organization were to offer malpractice insurance, lawyers could offer their services on an open source basis as well. They would be no different than any other Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) including documentation authors.

    • My fiance has an investment account. She had pages and pages of buys and sells that had to be recorded. Turbotax has an interface that imports the data directly from the brokerage firm, the same forms that were mailed to her. It was incredibly quick.
      • by pla (258480)
        Doesn't her broker offer downloads of an automagically filled-in form 8949 (nee Schedule D1), no fuss no muss?

        If not - She need a new broker. You don't need TurboTax to fill in what amounts to a simple spreadsheet with a one-line summary.
    • by autocannon (2494106) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:35PM (#39632661)

      Yes, go use some free open source "stuff" to file your taxes. Hope it works, hope it's accurate. Oh, and hope they update it multiple times every god damn year to keep up to date with the ever changing tax code. But hey, it's free right. Why would anyone want to actually support software developers by "paying" for software.

      Seriously, what is the obsession here with people wanting everything for free? You want to do your taxes for free, sit down with the paper form and do them. If Turbotax is too expensive for you, try TaxAct. It was $20 to efile both state and federal this year.

      • by TheRaven64 (641858) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:49PM (#39632955) Journal

        Oh, and hope they update it multiple times every god damn year to keep up to date with the ever changing tax code.

        I think you've identified the real problem. It's not that there is no open source tax software, it's that your tax system is so complex that it requires software to file the return.

        • by jimicus (737525) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:45PM (#39633949)

          I don't think it's so much that as the principle of the thing.

          By demanding you file your tax online yet not providing a half-sane product to do this free of charge, the ability to file a tax return is itself subject to another charge that you can't easily avoid. Effectively, another tax.

          We have something similar in the UK - companies are legally obliged to file their tax returns online by submitting a file in a particular format. The format itself is open and based on XML, but pretty much the only things that support it are commercial applications aimed at the accounting industry. Which means you are forced to pay an accountant even if your affairs are simple enough you could easily fill in the forms yourself.

          IIRC they may also have a form online you can fill in. Haven't checked lately...

      • by quixote9 (999874) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:07PM (#39633281) Homepage
        Seconding TaxAct. Cheapest and best. Does not phone home, as far as I know. It's the only reason I still have to have a virtualbox Windows taking up space on my drive.

        I've been looking for a reliable, complete FOSS alternative for years. I think, as others have said, it doesn't exist because nobody (me included if I knew how!) would do that kind of tedium for free.
        • TaxAct is also pretty transparent. My girl uses HR Block's deal, and it blows in comparison, and cost her almost $100 to use. TaxAct also lets me print the actual forms that would are submitted to the IRS, and it's cake to use since it stores last years tax info AND outlines what's different from last year. Been using it for 5 years now and hope it stays cheap and accurate.
      • by F69631 (2421974) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:50PM (#39634039)

        Seriously, what is the obsession here with people wanting everything for free? You want to do your taxes for free, sit down with the paper form and do them.

        Where I live, the process goes like this:

        AT THE START OF EACH YEAR: The government send you your tax card. It tells you your tax percentage, etc. (based on assumption that you earn as much as you did the previous year). You take that to your employer, he pays the taxes directly from your wage and there is nothing more you NEED to do. If your income is very different than it was the previous year, you get taxed the wrong amount and the government sends you either returns or a bill at the end of the year. If you know your income has changed and don't want a large bill/can't give the government any money temporarily, you can fill out a simple 1 page (2 sides) form that they sent you with the card (or submit it online) and then they'll send you a recalculated tax card.

        DURING THE YEAR: Most people don't need to do anything. If your income changes a lot and you don't want to pay the government any extra (which they would, of course, return at the end of the year) or don't want a large bill, you can call them, visit an office or fill out the info online and they'll send you a recalculated tax card.

        AT THE END OF THE YEAR: They tell you that they want to either return some money (and ask you to inform them if your bank account number has changed) or they send you a bill. Again, you get a simple 1 page (two-sided) form (or can fill it out online) to tell them about anything that might affect the decision (such as having earned/lost a lot of money by trading stock or any similar things).

        For example, I got a bit better paying job last year but was too lazy to inform them so they now sent me a letter "You've earned more than we thought you would, so you've paid 790 euros too little taxes. Here are two bills of 395 euros, you have six months to pay the first and twelve months to pay the second. Here is a form you can use to complain if we've made any incorrect decisions." I might fill out the form because I've spent quite a few euros to buying stuff that indirectly helps me earn income (books to get certifications, etc.) and that sort of stuff is tax deductible. I don't expect to reduce the bill by a lot but it's going to take just 3 minutes or so, so why not.

        I've never understood why does USA have such a complex system that the government doesn't know how much they should pay taxes...

    • by Sarten-X (1102295)

      As a great fan of open source and community-based development, I have to sadly hang my head and agree.

      I have some investments that, due to their particular details, have stumped multiple tax preparers. The (professional) software I've looked at doesn't even support this particular item, so I have little hope for my beloved open source. Even if there was a community-developed tax program, I personally wouldn't trust its accuracy over time. Yes, I could go through myself and verify that all of the year's chan

      • Well, since the government defines the taxes, in the interest of its citizens the government should also provide a no frills open source (BSD or such) implementation of the tax code... Third parties could then build better interfaces (facilities to import from other sources etc) on that, while knowing that the base code complies with all the applicable rules and submits the requires end data to the IRS.

        For the government to set arbitrarily complex tax rules, and then force you to pay third party suppliers to clean up the mess it forces on you is wrong.

        Everyone should have a free, government supplied and transparent way of completing their taxes.

        Personally i wouldn't trust a closed source package at all, since i cannot verify what its doing.

      • by HapSlappy_2222 (1089149) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:47PM (#39633991)

        I have some investments that, due to their particular details, have stumped multiple tax preparers.

        They never tell you this part of being a drug runner, do they? No, it's all "see the world" and "make people happy!". Sigh.

    • Tax rules and tax law are the epitome of the "hard and boring functionality that no one wants to write, because its not cool, not visible, and definitely not shiny" that plague all projects, both open source and closed source. Tax rules and laws also have nuances that really need to be understood in order to translate correctly into code - again, something really boring and hard that needs to be done.

      • That and I would always be wary of any tax softwre not backed up with warranty on its accuracy no matter if it's FOSS or not. You don't want some subtle bug to cause an audit to hit you and then you find out that your software's developer disclaims all liability. Besides most tax companies offer pretty comprehensive editions for free for the average tax filer.

    • by pla (258480)
      Seriously, this is the kind of product that is done with help of lawyers and accountants, because it is really complicated.

      BS. I have a 9-to-5, have a mortgage, play in the stock market, do contracting on the side, and do my own taxes. And I'd say I've just described more than what 90% of US taxpayers need to file. And seriously? Mind-numbingly easy. Painfully easy. Embarrassing-that-professionals-do-that-for-a-living easy.

      Doing ones own taxes involves nothing harder than "add up all the box 2s o
      • What BS? I was talking about making tax software, not filing your own taxes. When you're making tax software it needs to account for all possible scenarios, and it needs to be kept up to date.
        • by pla (258480)
          What BS? I was talking about making tax software, not filing your own taxes. When you're making tax software it needs to account for all possible scenarios, and it needs to be kept up to date.

          Except, you don't need to handle everything - You just need to know the program's limitations, state the big ones up front, and alert the user when they run into one of the less common ones.

          I suppose this may count as a matter of interpretation, but I didn't take the FP's question to mean "why can't IBM file its t
      • by Bert64 (520050)

        In most other countries, people with typical (ie 9-5 job, accounts with major institutions, mortgage on one property etc) finances don't need to file taxes, it's all done for them automatically and appropriate taxes are deducted directly from income sources.
        It's only people with especially complex finances who fill out tax returns.

        • Taxes are withheld from your income. But there are also a myriad of deductions and adjustments that can be applied that make it more complex.

      • I've had to do my taxes by hand for the past 2 years because I am a non-resident alien, which most software is unable to handle. Isn't it nice that they give the hardest job to the people who know the least about the tax system in this country?

        Although most of the work is straightforward, there is a lot of terminology that has to be learned. For example, your residency status at the federal level is determined differently at state level, so you have to go trawling through the 70 page 'how to fill in' docume

      • by Joiseybill (788712) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:52PM (#39634091)


        BS. I have a 9-to-5, have a mortgage, play in the stock market, do contracting on the side, and do my own taxes. And I'd say I've just described more than what 90% of US taxpayers need to file. And seriously? Mind-numbingly easy. Painfully easy. Embarrassing-that-professionals-do-that-for-a-living easy. ...
        Doing ones own taxes involves nothing harder than "add up all the box 2s on your W2s and box 4s on your 1099s and enter that total on line 62 of your 1040". Totally mechanical crap that doesn't require the least bit of thought or familiarity with tax law. ... ...
        For the rest of us, don't try to make this sound harder than the reality. Plug and frickin' chug, baby!

        @pla: +1 because you are a 1%-er. ( intended as a wake up; I can't afford the 1% moniker, maybe I'm in the top 10)
            Sure, for the /. audience, the "algorithm" of following the instructions, including branches.. plugging & chugging when we fill in variables, and making an informed decision on deductibles - is all likely within our grasp.

        However, look around at the rest of the country.
        Most Americans cannot balance a checkbook [1], [2].

        The basic tax guide "Publication 17" is over 300 pages long. [3]
        The instructions for the basic 1040 form is at 100 pages [4].

        Just answering the questions "What's New?", "Do I have to file", and "Where do I file" ( [4] pages 6-7) incorporate 4 more pages of tables and worksheets referenced in the text ( pp 8-11), and suggest the taxpayer review 10 separate publications for clarifications, outside the 'core' paperwork of Pub 17 and 1040 instructions.
          point: it is complex, even to "just follow the instructions". Not everyone is the sort who just jumps in, presses ON, and only looks for manuals after it doesn't work. ( I am.. but not everyone is.)

        If you are lucky enough to have a job, and a mortgage, play in the stock market, and do contracting on the side.. you are a pretty smart and fairly motivated person. You can multitask. You can prioritize tasks, and see projects through to the finish.
        Only 58% of the US population is employed.. or 42% is not. [5] - BLS report " population/employment ratio" .. when it comes to the word "unemployed", the US Govt needs to take a lesson from Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”

        Never mind making educated decisions about deductions like work expenses and medical costs. I don't think the average American could fill out the typical medical insurance claim form, never mind read one and extract information for tax purposes.

        How many Americans - picked "at random" - would you trust to balance your checkbook, or to fill out your tax forms?
        Heck, I don't even trust a "jury of my peers" to render a sensible verdict.
        Most folks I have met can't follow a 2 -page recipe in a cookbook, or remember the plot to a 200-page novel unless the movie and/or starred Heath Ledger or Megan Fox.

        If every citizen was encouraged to do their own taxes, imagine how much WE taxpayers would be paying to clean that mess up?
        Don't give people more credit than they deserve. Look at our last few elections.

    • by poetmatt (793785)

      acting like everyone needs a tax lawyer and accountant is skipping the fact that the people who want the software are by definition very interested and capable of doing it themselves.

      way to distract with a strawman, though.

      • by Americano (920576)

        Actually, he said "this type of product" is created with the oversight of tax lawyers and accountants. And he's right - because writing software to calculate all of the arcane nuances of tax stuff is something that requires fairly detailed knowledge of the tax code, and how it works.

        There's a difference between "everybody needs a tax lawyer and an accountant, no matter how simple their particular return may be," and "writing generalized software that implements (correctly) the interacting tax codes of 50 s

    • by sribe (304414) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:57PM (#39633089)

      Everything you said PLUS tax software must conform to an extremely rigid release schedule, where neither dates nor functionality are negotiable at all, which is not something I've ever seen from open source.

    • by rssrss (686344) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:14PM (#39633419)

      I am a lawyer. I used to do my taxes myself without purchasing a tax program. I wrote a spreadsheet to do the calculations, because doing them by hand was tedious, complicated, and error prone.

      One year in the 1990s I did my taxes using my own spreadsheet. A few months later, I received a letter from the IRS explaining that I had miscalculated my taxes, that they had recalculated them, and they were enclosing a check payable to me for the $1,100 that I had overpaid.

      In that moment I realized that I could no longer rely on my own efforts and understanding to complete my tax returns. If I had left $1,100 on the table, I had probably left more than the IRS would tell me about.

      After that, I started to use tax programs. I use H&R Block At Home, but I am sure that Turbo Tax is also useful. At any rate they are a lot cheaper than paying too much taxes.

    • It's also worth mentioning the help you'll receive from a professional, commercial product if you get audited. I don't think the open source community is the first place I'd look for tax law help, much as I love em.
  • Open Tax Solver (Score:5, Informative)

    by rbowen (112459) Works for SourceForge on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:29PM (#39632569) Homepage

    Here's one: https://sourceforge.net/projects/opentaxsolver/ [sourceforge.net]

    Having said that, I have found that paying a professional has always been a worthwhile investment. I have a masters degree in mathematics, so it's not a question of the calculations, but my accountant knows things about tax law that I don't, and keeps me from getting audited while getting me the best refunds that the law allows.

    • by Kenja (541830)
      More then that, in most cases if you get audited H&R Block etc will represent you and try to get it cleared up.
    • The math itself is pretty simple... I don't think there's anything beyond basic addition/subtraction and percentage. However, knowing when you can and can't apply it is the tricky part. The only thing preventing me from doing the 1040EZ form is my student loan interest and that alone made paying for tax software worth it (even though I still didn't get anymore back than I would have with the 1040EZ... still nice to know).

    • by berashith (222128)

      exactly. I had a guy once ( i moved away, cant use him now) that would look through my papers, ask very interesting questions, and find ways to apply laws to my situation. saved me thousands in fees and penalties in ways that I wasnt aware of. Some people are worth paying very well for the service that their knowledge can provide. This accountant had to stay current and remember years of experience to provide the quality service that he gave me.

    • IANAMM (I am not a Master's in Math). I find the calculations in tax law rather evil-hard. It's a different kind of hard that "higher math" - it's the numerical interlocks that are brutal. I'm rusty so I'm making this up as pseudo-taxcode, but stuff like the sentence below are typical *easy* tax law!

      "You own a rental building and rent 2 units out to tenants and live in the third. You bought the building first as part of a partnership then later acquired the whole thing, so your basis calculations are alread

  • There are lots of programmers out there with diverse interests, but tax law seems like the kind of thing you need to pay people to deal with, and as far as I know no one has ponied up the cash.

    At the very least, you need to pay people to confirm everything you've done is correct. I don't know where liability would fall if your taxes were incorrect due to a bug in libretax or whatever, but I don't think I'd want to find out ;p

    • Re:Guessing not.. (Score:4, Informative)

      by SJHillman (1966756) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:39PM (#39632745)

      Liability always falls on the person filing the tax. Even with commercial software like TurboTax. This is why Intuit, H&R Block, etc offer liability protection and audit assistance as a selling point - to help reduce your actual liability.

      Fun Fact: Even if the IRS screws up, the taxpayer is still liable.

      • And the gubmint gets to level fines that would be illegal for anyone else. Had a friend who was a few months late sending off state taxes of $113. Got a penalty/interest bill for $107. Wish I was joking. Try and put a 95% penalty into a promissory note and watch how fast it gets laughed out of court.

    • by jedidiah (1196)

      Tax law is constantly in flux. So tax software is more like a service than a product. You need yearly updates to remain current. You can't just use last year's software even if it is a commercial version.

      This "support" model is not what Free Software is good at.

      Taxes are also not simple. If yours are non-trivial, then you are far better off paying a competent professional instead of trying to be miserly with the attempts to replace an accountant with software.

      The value of even the commercial tax software is

  • Be careful. While any such FOSS tools might be fully accurate, sometimes it's worth extra money to ge the gaurantees and backing from a TurboTax, H&R Block, etc. in case there are any inaccuracies. And you can export out yoyr return as a pdf for your records. Sometimes ideology is not as important as getting backing in case the IRS comes snooping. *shrug*

  • Excel 1040 (Score:5, Informative)

    by n1ywb (555767) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:40PM (#39632773) Homepage Journal
    It's sort of open source, as open as an excel spreadsheet goes anyway. Works fine in OpenOffice Calc. I've been using it for years, haven't been audited yet.

    http://home.mchsi.com/~taxcalculator/ [mchsi.com]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:42PM (#39632815)

    I'm a CPA and I would recommend using taxact.com. While it's not open source, it is free for any income level (for federal filing) and user friendly (if you can ignore the upselling of the deluxe version along the way). Given the frequency with which the tax law changes, it's doubtful a FOSS solution will emerge in this segment.

  • by couchslug (175151) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:44PM (#39632863)

    Tax compliance is in Federal interest, and with standard Free and Open software everyone could use the same application.

    • While I agree, the government is never going to write that software with the goal of finding you the most/best deductions.
    • by alispguru (72689) <(bane) (at) (gst.com)> on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @01:21PM (#39633537) Journal

      An amazing amount of ambiguity and crap in the tax code would go away if the Government were required to publish a program in Java (probably best balance of portability, capability, and specification) and that program WAS the definition of the tax code.

      This would have the nice side effect of keeping lawyers who can't think formally (in the mathematical sense) away from tax law.

    • by larkost (79011)

      I agree with the idea, but the Tax Software companies spend a lot of money to make sure this never happens:

      http://www.consumercal.org/article.php?id=127

      I have seen other examples, but that was the first one a little bit of googling turned up.

    • by Bert64 (520050)

      Very true...
      Everyone filing in the same way would make it much easier to track errors and investigate how someone came to a particular calculation, while having the code open would allow people to see exactly how the software came to its conclusion.
      It would also be a fair system, since every tax payer would have equal access to the same software.

      They could also try simplifying the tax system. A simpler system makes for less errors, less loopholes, less scope for tax evasion and much easier prosecution of an

    • Starting last year, I begun paying US tax (I'm a non-resident Alien so I pay both the US tax and my home country taxes, in this case Brazil) and I find it mind boggling that there is not a government software for these. Specially since the US tax code is arcane and byzantine, and in some cases borderline ridiculous. It explains why there is such a huge industry behind tax filling there.

      Here in Brazil we have had an official tool for the past 8 years IIRC. Done in Java also, so you can run pretty much everyw

  • by utkonos (2104836) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:45PM (#39632887)

    The main barrier is that tax software is different every year. Each year the tax code is changed then published. This published tax code is not readable by mortals. It is read by tax lawyers who work with the tax prep software makers to make sure that this years tax code is reflected in the tax prep software.

    As much as I love FOSS, I doubt that a volunteer community would be able to pull off this level of complexity and do it on time each year.

    Being that it would be a community effort, what happens if the guy who is in charge of component X gets a new job and can't devote his time to getting that component out the door on time. In most FOSS communities this is not a problem. That component just doesn't get worked on until someone picks up the torch later on. In tax prep software this would be a showstopper. The whole thing would grind to a halt if the whole piece of software does not reflect accurately the current year's tax code.

    • by Yaztromo (655250)

      The main barrier is that tax software is different every year. Each year the tax code is changed then published. This published tax code is not readable by mortals. It is read by tax lawyers who work with the tax prep software makers to make sure that this years tax code is reflected in the tax prep software.

      As much as I love FOSS, I doubt that a volunteer community would be able to pull off this level of complexity and do it on time each year.

      Then factor in that each jurisdiction has differing tax codes. Open Source works really well when developers have an itch they need scratched, and can find other similar developers from a diverse community. I may be an expert developer with decades of experience, but would you really want a developer (i.e.: not a tax expert) from British Columbia, Canada, writing tax algorithms for someone in Texas?

      Taxes are different from other OSS problems in that there are thousands of different jurisdictions, with co

  • by mikestew (1483105) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @12:51PM (#39632995) Homepage

    If your main criteria is "freely available" and not "open source", and your adjusted gross income is less than $57K, you can just fill out the forms for free [irs.gov]. It uses Adobe Flash if you have an aversion to such things, and there doesn't appear to be anything open source about it.

    If your AIG is more than $57K, your tax situation is probably such that you ought to be handing over some money to a pro or Turbo Tax.

  • I realize most of you will assume this question is USA related (I see the firehose story got tagged with "usa" quite quickly), but it applies to lots of other countries too. In Canada, we're supposed to use NETFILE certified software, most of which is free up to a certain income threshold. The Canada Revenue Agency has a list of all software certified for your 2012 filing [netfile.gc.ca] (i.e.: 2011 tax year). Some of those same companies are probably certified by the IRS for filing taxes in the USA too.
  • For income tax in Canada, have a look at http://www.studiotax.com/en/main.htm [studiotax.com]. It's free as in beer, but I don't know about libre. WIndows only.

    -- hendrik

  • I have a fantastic tax preparation system: Mark Frenchell. And the best part is it was built using a very small company of only two people: Howard and Josephine Frenchell.

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Tuesday April 10, 2012 @03:09PM (#39635367)

    http://www.excel1040.com/ [excel1040.com]

    Free, works in open office, has been doing this for 15 years.
    Produced the same results as professional software.

    Probably not good if you have some new tax activity in your life until you see it done right once.

    I.e. "This year, for the first time, I'm doing my own taxes".
    I.e. "This year, for the first time, I started buying and selling stocks".
    I.e. "This year, for the first time, I started renting property to others".

    The form is there- but you have to know to fill it out and how to fill it out.

    I used it in Openoffice or Libreoffice and it worked great. I have a complicated return and have been doing my own returns for the last 15 years. This sheet made it much easier than doing taxes by hand. It took under 2 hours to do my taxes.

    Highly Recommended.

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