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The Almighty Buck Software United States

Open Source Tax Products? 719

sub7 asks: "That time of the year is upon as again: Tax Season. Those of us living in the U.S. are busy fumbling with various forms with awkward names and meaningless garble on them. Being a lazy BOFH, I went to H & R Block to see how much it would cost for them to prepare and file my taxes. They estimated -at least- $175, if not more! I knew it was cheaper to buy some software to handle my taxes. So I headed down to my local office supply conglomerate and picked up Turbo Tax 2004 Premier for $69.99. Being an OSS user for nearly 6 years I have never even considered an OSS tax solution product (probably because I ph34r t4x s34s0n!). So I turn to Slashdot to ask: Are there any projects equivalent to Turbo Tax or the other tax products out there for the OSS community?"
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Open Source Tax Products?

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  • Actually... (Score:3, Funny)

    by HerculesMO ( 693085 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:19PM (#11900591)
    • umm... (Score:2, Informative)

      What do you call this? []
      • Re:umm... (Score:2, Insightful)

        by generic-man ( 33649 )
        Well, there's a beta of a US tax program, and then a bunch of programs that are not relevant to filing a 2004 federal tax return.

        So I'd have to say I call it "nothing."
      • I call it 'the Slashdot Effect'.
      • Re:umm... (Score:5, Informative)

        by EvanED ( 569694 ) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [denave]> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:38PM (#11901871)
        A collection of irrelevant and questionable software?

        Let's see, there are 11 projects found. Let's go through them:

        Open Tax Solver: "Tax preparation software for use in the US, Canada, and UK". Okay, this looks like it might be promsing. But the fact that they are trying to do more than one country in the same product makes me question it a bit at least. And I'm not sure if using beta tax software is the best idea.

        Canadian Payroll: "Calculates Canadian payroll taxes". Completely useless for (most) individuals, unless Canada's payroll taxes work differently than the US and the employees have to calculate it.

        Payroll Perl Modules: "A Perl API for calculating payroll taxes". See above; not what is needed.

        gTaxEstimator: "Tax preparation software". Okay, holds some promise, but do you really want to use a program called gTaxEstimator for something you can be sent to prison for if you screw up too badly?

        reTax: Not what is needed; it calculates sales tax.

        PHP Mortgage Calculator: Not what is needed

        See-Commerce: Not even close to what is needed

        MX Cart: Even further away from what is needed

        Vista Nova osCommerce: Not what is needed

        UCan: "Performs conversions of interest to travelers between the US and Canada." Not even close to what is needed.

        PTax98: Oh, good, a program that will help you with 1998 taxes.

        Anyway, none of these programs at least advertise features that are even close to what a commercial tax program does. None even say that they can do electronic submission.

        So I call that link a red herring.
        • by sterno ( 16320 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @03:19PM (#11902447) Homepage
          In the end, I do not believe that it's realistic for there to be a good quality open source tax program. The big problem is that a huge amount of the work that goes into something like TurboTax is done by professional tax accountants and attorneys. This is not the sort of thing that could be rolled together by a small independent effort.

          I could see it as a possibility as a collective effort by a few companies. If there were enough organizations that saw a benefit in having an open source development effort, then they could put together the resources to do it. Having said that, who would benefit from free tax software? Certainly not intuit, or H&R block, or pretty much any tax accountant on earth.

          Maybe the IRS could sponsor something like this, but realistically it's far more efficient for them to let TurboTax be the de facto standard. The price for TurboTax is very reasonable compared to the cost of an accountant, especially if you use the web version of their software.

          • "Having said that, who would benefit from free tax software? Certainly not intuit, or H&R block, or pretty much any tax accountant on earth."

            If they would just simplify the tax a modified flat tax...would blow away the need for H&R Block, Turbo Tax and the like...just need a calculator to figure the % of what you made....and send it in....

            • Oh... (Score:3, Insightful)

              by sterno ( 16320 )
              Well alright then, get right on that.

              The problem is that a vast amount of legislation is incorporated into our tax code. You know how ever time the Republicans want to offer something as a tax credit rather than as a new pay out? That's just another few gallons of quagmire for our tax code.

              Let's say that tomorrow we had a flat tax. What would happen to:

              * Deductions for children
              * Deductions for interest on home loans
              * Deductions for business expenses

              There are thousands of little deductions that have b
      • Re:umm... (Score:4, Interesting)

        by amigabill ( 146897 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @03:26PM (#11902560)
        Well, the Open Tax Solver sounded interesting for a minute. Perhaps it has potential in the future, but for me, for now, it and other things there are useless. I need a schedule E (3 rental properties), and the forms and worksheets for depreciating stuff. I also live in Maryland state.

        I think it may be hard for an open-source program to do all of the tax code. Tax law in USA is enormously complex. It's vague in certain areas. Every rule has an exception, some of those exceptions have exceptions to them, and then even those on occasion have exceptions. Every year the law changes, so you may not get to reuse algorithms from last year.

        There's also the fact that if something goes wrong, the user may be royally in trouble. Do you want someone to end up owing enormouse penalty fees or going to jail because of a bug in the open-source tax program screwed up his return? Would an open-source program have tax lawyers involved in quality checks, to verify it is correct, and to interpret the vague parts of the law? What happens if such an interpretation of a vague detail is disagreed with by the tax court?

        I worked at H&R Block as a tax preparer a few years ago. I wouldn't do it again. I wouldn't wan tto be involved in writing software that produces correct results for all users, and I certainly wouldn't want to have to deal with users complaining their tax returns got sent back by the IRS and they're now facing audits and other unpleasantness. I wouldn't want to be an open-source coder possibly facing lawsuits or IRS investigations if anything goes wrong.

        I am annoyed with TaxCut though. I had a question about something this program did for my tax return this year involving depreciating an item that broke and I threw in the trash, I didn't understand their calculation in this case. Their customer support refuses to answer this kind of question, using the excuse that such an answer would constitute tax advice, and they (H&R Block owns TaxCut) do not give tax advice. They told me I must go to a tax professional to get an answer to my question about their own product's calculation. If H&R Block doesn't have qualified tax professionals to answer a question about a calculation done by their own product, well, let's just say I won't be recommending this program or its producer to my friends anymore... And they have money to hire "tax preparers" and lawyers to verify the software, or at least the different software they use in their numerous offices to serve customers with.

        Am I overly paranoid? Maybe. If there's guys out there that were willing and able to make a complete tax preparation product and hire lawyers to interpret things and approve results, that'd be cool. I'm just not very optimistic that I'll be able to use such an open-source product for my own particular tax situation any time soon.
    • by adisakp ( 705706 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @03:12PM (#11902358) Journal
      There are already FREE (BEER) solutions to e-filing your taxes for nearly everyone in nearly every state. No OSS person is going to take on the liability or complexity of the US tax code for "fun", especially when the FREE (BEER) solutions work so well and there are plenty of better projects to which you can devote your limited time.

      The federal government has forms online and they also have a "Free File" for eligible taxpayers which is nearly everybody. Check out [] for the site and a link to a variety of supported vendors who will e-file you for free using web-based forms.

      I like [] -- they are among the federal "Free File" vendors so you can use them for free and have the Fed gov't pay for it - just make sure you start at the website or you'll have to pay for it. You can file the state with TaxAct for about $10 more but realize that MOST states (like IL where I live) have online FREE tax filing as well at their state websites.

      However, if you're like me and want to do it at home instead of on the web for free, you can purchase TaxAct's fed and state for use at home for $20. Their software is very easy to use and asks you simple questionaire to make sure you get all your deductions. Additionally, TaxAct isn't as bloated and is not filled with crapware (like nasty DRM that writes to your root sector on your HD) like the other major vendors have done in the past. I don't work for or have any relation to taxact, but I do like them compared to other products and I would recommend them for people who want the actual program at home versus the FREE (BEER) solutions above.

      The free online products allow you to file your taxes, guarantee accuracy of computations (not accuracy of what you enter OF COURSE!), print out your taxes for a personal copy, and verify their online filing. If you need a program, you can spend $20 for a fully guaranteed tax suite and save over the $175 or $69.99 charges mentioned in the post.

      • It's actually much better than that... in order to be a company that CAN charge for efile you have to give it away to a bunch of people.

        Essentially the IRS said that industry had to come up with a way to make it largely free or else they WERE going to come out with a universal solution. And industry said ok.

        It's a nearly perfect example of this kind of cooperation between government and the free market.
  • by mingot ( 665080 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:20PM (#11900601)
    Trudging through tax law every year and coding an application just can't be fun enough to reliably get a group of coders to produce something like this with any regulartity. Can it?
    • by OAB_X ( 818333 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:23PM (#11900653)
      I doubt that anyone finds doing stuff like that fun. At least TurboTax has people who are paid to read tax law, it removes some of the pain from their jobs and there is the incentive to not mess up otherwise they loose it. [their jobs].

      Even if there was an OSS product, I dot know if I would trust it, comercial software is still better in some cases, and this is one of them. If you get audited by the IRS/CCRA and it was because of the software, who are you going to sue? sourceforge? freshmeat? not likely.

      Thats my 2c.
    • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:25PM (#11900674) Homepage Journal
      Plus there is the whole topic of indemnity. Even though the EULA probably covers there asses, if TurboTax fucks up, chances are they will cover their ass and help you out. If OSS screws up, well all you can say is sometimes you get what you pay for....
      • by ornil ( 33732 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:29PM (#11900762)
        That is easily solved. Just have IRS develop this software. They have the accountants and they can guarantee that if software makes a mistake you are off the hook.

        We are paying taxes precisely so that the government can do public service projects. This strikes me as a reasonable one.
        • by Methuseus ( 468642 ) <> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:34PM (#11900836)
          It's really too bad our government has turned into a for-profit business. They wouldn't create something like this just because of the fact that they don't see enough of a return on their investments of time and money in creating the application.
          • by Misch ( 158807 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:37PM (#11900906) Homepage
            They won't do this because the IRS has already agreed to not compete with private industry.
        • Apparently the IRS isn't allowed to do this because it would compete with private tax software providers. Go figure.

        • The IRS is specifically banned from doing so, thanks to the lobbying effort of the tax preparation industry. It's just like the "free" electronic filing the IRS offers. The only way to use it is to buy a nonfree tax software product or go to a professional that has a product that can e-file.

          In this environment, I think we're pretty lucky that the telefile option doesn't require us to call 1-900-HRB-FILE or something.
          • Eh?

            Go to the IRS website. They've got a bunch of "partners" that will e-file your taxes for free. My federal return last year was free through a link to H&R Block's website from the IRS website. I still had to pay for my state return, though. But the return check more than made up for it.
        • by bircho ( 559727 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:54PM (#11901130)

          In Brazil the government allways developed the program used to it. They even developed a Java version, so you could use it on linux.

          They banned paper forms last year, and those who send all the data by internet have some advantages. I don't know all the functions Turbo Tax has, a government developed program can be better.

        • That is easily solved. Just have IRS develop this software.

          This is exactly what Inland Revenue has done in the UK. They have their own web application that you can fill in online, in addition to allowing you to upload your returns from the commercial software packages. I guess if your tax situation is remotely complex, the commercial packages will still make life much easier, but for simple PAYE, you don't need much more than the online forms.

        • by billh ( 85947 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:12PM (#11901487)
          Even if the IRS was allowed to do this (it isn't), they would never guarantee it was correct. Something important to remember: Even if you call the IRS with a tax question, you are still liable if they give you the wrong answer!!!

          This is totally fucked up, but completely true.

          • Of course you are still liable for the tax. Otherwise, folks would just call over and over trying to determine more and more complicated ways to ask the same question, in the hopes of getting the IRS to screw up.

            However, if the IRS makes a mistake with a tax question, you are freed from penalties and interest on the mistake. Yes, you still owe the tax you would have owed anyway, but you aren't going to jail either...

            This seems like a fair compromise to me.

    • You know, given how fucked up the Tax Code is, people that develop applictions like Tax Cut deserve the $20 I spend on it a year...
    • Support and updates (Score:3, Informative)

      by Kjella ( 173770 )
      Well, if there was ever a need for support and updates... which last I heard was the OSS business model. However, since you only need it once a year, it'd be too easy to get it from someone else. Maybe a duel license model, where you have a "basic" OSS app, and some extended for-pay features to catch you once the taxes get too complex.

      However, I think it is the double tranlation that is the killer. First someone needs to translate the tax code from legalese to english, then from english to code. And I'm su
    • This may be true for technical people, but what about others? Why should only programmers find it interesting to work on hard problems, and not economists? And even if tax experts would rather charge you for filling our your tax forms, what about students of economics or law?
      This is really comes down to one of the major problems with OSS: Only (well, mostly) technically-minded people work on them, and hardly anybody from other fields. But you need those people, and not only for designing icons and such thin
  • Do you like wine with your taxes?
  • by HerculesMO ( 693085 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:21PM (#11900623)
    Why did you buy the software? You can fill the entire thing out online and save half the cash.

    The site actually works flawlessly in Firefox too :)
  • Try: (Score:5, Informative)

    by the_mighty_$ ( 726261 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:21PM (#11900633)
    Open Tax Solver []
    • This would have been better answered with a search on Freshmeat (see here []) but the first hit seems like something mildly useful if you want to do some work that isn't necessarily point and click.

      OpenTaxSolver [] with a screenshot here [].

      Me? I'd pay the $175 to a real live person. They usually save you at least two times what they are worth over a commercial software package. YMMV.
  • by sulli ( 195030 ) * on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:22PM (#11900634) Journal
    Mexican border controls are almost certainly cheaper than $69.
  • by dills ( 102733 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:23PM (#11900645) Homepage
    Anybody who invests five minutes in researching this will find that no, there aren't any OSS tax solutions.


    They aren't needed.

    If you go to, they will link you to several services which will enable you to prepare and electronically file your taxes online, completely free of charge. Most won't file your state taxes for free, but then, many states allow you to file for free on their own website.

    I didn't pay a dime this year, and I didn't have to print out any forms. And yes, I have a reasonably complicated tax return.
  • Not So Much. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Onimaru ( 773331 ) * on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:23PM (#11900655)

    You're not really buying programming there, you're buying a lawyer's time through proxy. All the lawyers I know bill out in six minute increments and earn every freakin' penny they make (and it's a lot of them), so I don't think you're going to be getting this kind of stuff for free. You could make the program free, but you'd still have to buy the advice.

    That said, TurboTax for the Web [] is cheaper, works for everyone who only lived in one state this tax season, and will run in Firefox on Linux and Mac, so at least you don't have to use Windows if it's not your cup of tea.

    • Re:Not So Much. (Score:3, Interesting)

      My wife pointed out that you can go to the FREE FILE page [] you can file through H&R Block or TurboTax online for free.

      "Free federal online tax preparation and e-filing for all taxpayers. No restrictions. Everyone qualifies."

      Some free filings do have restrictions, but some do not. If you can't get free as in speech (with taxes, you won't) you might as well get free as in beer.

      * If you go to the tax prep sites directly, you may not be able to get the same offer. You have to go through the IRS si
  • Are there any projects equivalent to Turbo Tax or the other tax products out there for the OSS community?

    You could always not pay. I mean, just ask Bill Gates, right? All OSS supporters are evil communists that want to destroy America, capitalism and the free market economy. None of us would want to pay taxes.

    • You could always not pay.

      I already paid, it comes off my payroll. I want my money back.

      Given that they owe me a huge wad of cash, the government might actually be quite happy if I didn't file.

      As an aside, in Ontario where I live, there is a checkbox at the end of the tax forms asking if I want to donate all or part of my refund to help pay down Ontario's public debt. If I filed on paper, I would probably add a checkbox saying "Like hell, you greedy bastards", and check that one.

      I'm dying to find

  • Can you imagine the horror of a OSS tax prep software package? By the time tax season rolled around we'd have 5 forks of shoddily written, poorly maintained code, and at least three new holy wars.

    No thanks. I'll leave it in the hands of people that have accountability.
  • Why? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by duffbeer703 ( 177751 ) * on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:24PM (#11900662)
    Why would you trust volunteers to produce tax software? If the software miscalcuates something or the programmers misinterpret some arcane IRS ruling, you end up being liable for the mistake -- which could cost you thousands of dollars.

    Now if TaxCut or Turbo Tax has a defect like that, the company agrees to assume responsibility for calculation errors.

    TaxCut Deluxe is $25, and the state version is $20 with a $20 rebate. If you don't want to spend the money, you can easily use a spreadsheet & calculator to figure your taxes, and waste 5-6 more hours in the process.
  • by Myrrh ( 53301 ) <> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:24PM (#11900664)
    One of the things I like about TurboTax is the peace of mind. The company itself certifies that your results are correct, and will even litigate on your behalf if you run into trouble because you used their program.

    Would an OSS tax software project have deep enough pockets to provide the same sort of guarantees? Because I think for many people to place their trust in an OSS tax preparation package, they would have to have some assurance that the results weren't going to either get them audited or thrown in prison.

    Perhaps if there was a CPA out there who could also hammer out code ... anyone?
    • You're absolutely right. When it comes down to legalities and taxation, its one of the few times you would definitely want a company to put their ass on the line to make sure that the product worked as stated. Who would you sue in an open source project when the IRS or Revenue Canada comes knocking on your door?!
    • by way2trivial ( 601132 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:35PM (#11900856) Homepage Journal
      they certify the MATH is correct. ersion/ind ex.php/t138.html
      Accuracy of TurboTax Calculations. Intuit diligently works to ensure the accuracy of the calculations on every form prepared using TurboTax tax preparation software. If you are a registered user that has updated your Software with the most recent update available prior to filing your return and you pay an IRS or state penalty and/or interest solely because of a calculation error on a form prepared using the Software, and not as a result of, among other things, your failure to enter all required information accurately, willful or fraudulent omission or inclusion of information on your tax return, misclassification of information on the tax return, or failure to file an amended return to avoid or reduce an applicable penalty/interest after Intuit announced updates or corrections to the Software in time for you to file an amended return, then Intuit will pay you in the amount of the IRS or state penalty and/or interest paid by you to the IRS or state. (A "registered user" is a user who either registers his/her purchase with Intuit, or has purchased a license to use the Software directly from Intuit).
  • I used TaxSlayer online this year. No problems with the site using Firefox for Linux. Free processing if you're 25 or under, 61 or older, or an active member of the military.
  • First, getting tax software correct requires a team of tax accountants who are up to snuff on the latest tax regulations. Good luck getting them to chip in on a free software product. Second, liability for said tax accountants and the programmers. If a software product submits a bad e-File, guess whose problem it is according to the IRS: the user. But then the user can go to civil court and get redress from the software author(s). Good luck getting anyone to submit code and/or advice for free when they
  • by N8F8 ( 4562 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:25PM (#11900675)
    Since I started having an accountant prepare my taxes three years ago there has not been a year where he did not save me far for than the small amount of money he charges to to my taxes. If you have kind of investments or run a small business then the reduction in liability from having a professional do your taxes is worth it.
  • I found a guy that did my taxes for around $90, state, fed and a extra form or 2 for some ebay sales and side contact work I had done.

    Best of all if you get audited over the taxes they did, they will come with you to the audit.... turbo tax doesn't do that.
  • My Tax Tools... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Provos ( 20410 )
    I use this (IRS Form 1040, pdf format) [], this (IRS Form 1040 instructions, pdf format) [], and XCalc. Seems to work fine for me.
  • by American AC in Paris ( 230456 ) * on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:25PM (#11900687) Homepage
    Take a quick trip through some of the IRS' 1400 PDFs []. You'll find over 400 megabytes of tax forms and instructions.

    The tax code is updated every year.

    Unless you're looking at a fairly trivial tax calculator, trying to write and maintain an Open Source, Community-Driven tax program would be a positively Herculean undertaking. It'd dwarf the Mozilla and Apache projects. If you are looking at a fairly simple tax program, then you can probably wrap your taxes up by hand in the time it takes to download, install, and do your taxes on your PC.

    What's more, code errors and oversights can mean audits, overpayments, smaller returns and penalties for your users.

  • by MindStalker ( 22827 ) <> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:25PM (#11900689) Journal
    or /app/freeFile/jsp/index.jsp?
    for a complete list of freefile services
  • OSS rules! (Score:2, Informative)

    by jargoone ( 166102 ) *
    gnuTaxes [] is looking hopeful, if you're still living in 1999. From their "future release section":
    1.0.0 - release gnuTax application with complete tax system definitions by end of 2000..

    Seriously, these applications are not simple to write, and they change quite a bit, every year. Further, there's probably a certain amount of liability involved. You're better off sticking with one of the big commercial applications, or a web filing service. Hopefully they'll eventually write one in Java...
  • I wrote a simply program that tells me the tax for a year Y for a given filing status: []

    There are my other links, too lazy to a/href them:
    * PTAX (1998 and 2001) at


    * gnutaxes: -- kinda dead.

    * Linux tax preparation software:


    * hold=4&mode=th
  • My tax preparer seems to be closed source. I keep on trying to reverse engineer the DNA, but with questionable mutations. Any suggestions out there?

    Seriously, go to an enrolled agent or CPA. They pay for themselves in knowledge of tax breaks.
  • Intuit pretty much owns the the tax software market these days. But if your taxes are not too complicated, I think the IRS has some ways to file online or via telephone. It's not OS but it does get the job done. []
  • If the software is open source then the IRS will be able to see what --dishonest-mode does.

  • by jxyama ( 821091 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:35PM (#11900850)
    ...would you trust it?

    if H&R or TurboTax make mistakes, you can hold them responsible. at least, they will give you the guarantee. i dont think anyone would stand behind any OSS programs when it comes to IRS liability.

    not to sound judgemental, but if you are talking about saving $70 to $175 as being a "big deal," i tend to suspect that it's more of your laziness rather than complications that's preventing you from trying/using the IRS electronically fillable forms, available for free online.

  • by Noksagt ( 69097 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:36PM (#11900874) Homepage
    Open Tax Solver [] is the only F/OSS tax program worth mentioning. It is better than doing it by hand but (if you are used to handholding from TaxCut, TurboTax, and similar products) you will need to be ready for a shock. It is under active development & started out as merely a simple calculator. You would feed in a text file of what numbers you would put on which lines & it would spit out what to put on all of the other lines. So you still need to be familiar with how to do your taxes by hand--you just don't need to have a calculator when you do this. The advantage of this is that it is very flexible--the same program can and is being used for state and other taxes than the US Federal 1040. The disadvantage, of course, is that you need to know a little something & be able to edit that text file.

    Someone has since developed a GUI for it, but it is still quite new & somewhat untested. I haven't a clue if the GUI is as flexible as the CLI program.

    The output is a textfile. They suggest you sit down with the text file open & fill out a fillable PDF form by hand. Acroread 7 supposedly supports filling in form data from a text file, so that will be the next big improvement to OTS. The catch is you still have to print out the form & mail it in. I don't know how likely efile will be--just as with the open source personal finance programs downloading bank statements, there is generally a lack of information sharing unless you are Intuit or H&R Block.

    Don't like this? Then use a free (as in beer) web service through freefile []. They list dozens of sites where you can complete and efile federal and some state taxes. Most allow you to keep a PDF of the filed forms for your own records or for a snailmail submission.
  • use taxAct online (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kin_korn_karn ( 466864 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:37PM (#11900899) Homepage
    it eFiles both state and federal for cheap and has a better interface than any iteration of turbo tax that I've ever seen.

    The downside is that you have to trust the company with your financial info and transmit it to them over SSL. but this is slashdot, we know how to be secure... right?
  • by mstyne ( 133363 ) < minus berry> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @01:43PM (#11900991) Homepage Journal
    Yields how I've been doing my taxes for the past three years:

    If you don't mind filling out your state paperwork yourself, it doesn't cost you a dime.
  • by garyebickford ( 222422 ) <> on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:01PM (#11901243)
    Many technical standards have associated with them a reference application, the operation of which is defined as the correct operation. Reference applications are a great way of resolving the inevitable ambiguities that arise in standards. IRS could publish an open source reference application that would have a high likelihood of meeting the IRS rules for nearly all tax filers, and could be used as a base of study by the commercial tax software industry.

    If IRS were to adopt and publish such a reference application, then perhaps 95% of the questions that filers ask them could be answered by the application. The answers would be correct, or at least consistent. If an error were found, then the application could be corrected and everyone whose filing was affected by that error would be known and easily corrected. This is in contrast to the uncomfortably high error rate that the IRS telephone advisors have exhibited. (There many articles regarding studies of the error rate of IRS advisors, and all of those tax prep companies. I'm too lazy to find them today.)

    Implementing a subset of their algorithm suitable for processing on a desktop is entirely within their capabilities. The IRS computers presently do this processing for nearly all filers. In other words, they already have a 'reference application'. It's just not public.

    Such a reference application would not impact the commercial software industry, in fact it could help them as much as it would help anyone. I would expect that such an application need not have all the wysy features of a commercial tax prep product, and the commercial products might have much better tools for helping a person figure out the best strategy. Commercial vendors who want to base their product on the IRS product might or might not be be required to publish their own source, but should at least have to provide IRS with information on any errors that they identify, to allow correction by everyone.

    A reference application would also be useful to IRS. It would provide a common reference point for all discussions and contentions regarding interpretation of the tax code.

    There are some interesting legal questions. The majority of them would be answered by the following statements: 'This reference application is for reference by software professionals and is not intended for use 'as-is' by untrained individuals. It is applicable for the majority of individual tax filers, but not all. IRS does not guarantee accuracy and is not responsible for errors. Over- or under-payments, including interest and penalties the result from errors in the software are the responsibility of the filer, however underpayment as a result of a software error will not be presumed to be an act of fraud."
  • Don't Do it! (Score:4, Interesting)

    by briancnorton ( 586947 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:02PM (#11901266) Homepage
    A trip to H&R Block will pay for itself, so long as you identify the pitbull of the office. There is always one person, usually a woman, who will really hammer away with personal zeal at getting you a big return. your $175 investment could easily pay for itself if not pocket you some phat cash.
    • Re:Don't Do it! (Score:3, Informative)

      by hacker ( 14635 )
      ...and just remember, they're not responsible, or liable, if they get your numbers wrong.. unlike a certified, qualified CPA.

      The CPA is always, ALWAYS the better approach. Not only do they get you more money back (if you choose), but they know exactly how to work the deductions, so you pay the least amount necessary to meet your tax obligations. They also look longer-term, vs. how H&R block looks to you as a McDonalds customer: "Next!"

      Also, the CPA is responsible for defending you, or them, in court

  • by 4of12 ( 97621 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:05PM (#11901326) Homepage Journal

    I slogged through the instruction booklet for a weekend, reading, entering numbers, etc. and agonized went I got diverted into ancillary worksheets hidden in the booklet. Talk about stealth bureaucracy!

    But think about the Line by Line process of filling out the tax form. It's just a bunch of notices and instructions which could naturally be recast into any programming language that can print out a descriptive text, accept numerical input values and do simple arithmetic.

    Most of the entries could be answered with "This doesn't apply to me - enter zero." as default answers.

    In the longer run, releasing a programming language version of the tax form makes sense because the same 1099 forms that are sent to the IRS electronically could be made available to you as you fill out the form (assuming you can identify and authenticate yourself).

    No, it shouldn't be SomeVendors closed proprietary solution..

    The IRS should release the 1040 form in XML.

  • benefits (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Agrippa ( 111029 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @02:15PM (#11901545)
    There are some major benefits to having your taxes done by a certified professional.

    a) If you get audited by the IRS, your tax preparer is the one that talks to them instead of you. The IRS can pick just about any reason they want to audit you, from legitimate inaccuracies/questions they have to the sky being blue that day (ie a random audit)

    b) Your tax preparer, if decent, should know more loopholes in the state/federal tax structures that are apropos to you than TurboTax or even you yourself know.

    c) The fees you pay to a tax preparer are write-offs for next year's taxes.

    I just had my taxes done this week. It cost me $370, which is obviously a lot higher than TurboTax would be. This year I had a lot of tricky stuff including multiple jobs (some contracting), a house purchase, stock sales, etc. Considering she got me over 3000 off my federal/state taxes, I feel that its worth it. Some of the exemptions she used were totally unknown to TurboTax, which I have used in years past.

  • I usually do my own taxes, even when dealing with cross-border (U.S./Canada) issues, like foreign tax credits, foreign earned income exclusion, sales of foreign property, dual status U.S. filing, etc.

    This year, I hired an accountant (and EA: someone why has worked within the IRS previously in a return-related way for five years), paid $700, and definately got my money's worth: he found about $600 in extra refunds that even I, in my pennypinching, hacker-scheeming, diligence missed. (Of course, I expected this level of work, even though the extra refund was a pleasant surprise).

    A good tax accountant will provide a 30 to 60 minute consultation session for free that will give you an idea if it is worthwhile to retain their services.

    In my case, I'd already researched a bunch of strategies that I thought would work, but they involved the use of tax treaties. I was over my head in tax legaleese and nomenclature, and I needed someone to refute or verify what I though, and get the i's dotted and t's crossed to make sure I filed correctly.

  • by silicon not in the v ( 669585 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @04:03PM (#11903042) Journal
    The obvious answer to this is "No". And I really loved the comment where someone said "What about this?" and gave a link to freshmeat that had a bunch of useless stuff that was quickly debunked.

    As you may recall in many discussions of the pros and cons of switching from Win to Linux, tax software is always on there. That and the lack of games are the really big software holes that may not be filled for quite a while. The only reasonable solution available (or soon to be) is probably online versions of it through Hopefully they are web compliant enough that they can run on other browsers than IE.
  • by LibrePensador ( 668335 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @05:55PM (#11904379) Journal
    You are not looking for an open source application because this is something that you do only once a year. You are looking for a way to do your taxes using your existing FLOSS platform.

    How about your browser? Sounds good.


    Very thorough, fast and accurate and all you need is Mozilla or Firefox.

    You can try it for free. Heck, if you don't want to e-file you can just take the pdf file that they give you at the end, print it and send it in.
  • by RomulusNR ( 29439 ) on Thursday March 10, 2005 @08:53PM (#11905872) Homepage
    In order to submit IRS returns electronically, the software developer and/or the agency submitting the returns has to be an authorized E-File provider []. (Read that, it's chock full of insightful information on this subject, as is this one [].) When you use TurboTax, you don't end up submitting directly to the IRS, but via TurboTax's systems as a middleman, which passes your return along to the IRS via "e-file transmitters".

    Furthermore, you also have to get approval from every state you want to be able to support state returns for. 1 [], 2 [], 3 []

    Which is, no doubt, why there aren't a lot more tax software options.

    In the unlikely scenario that an open source project received this approval, the trusted endpoint problem would wreak havoc with its success.

    Such a project would have to function like a foundation, with its own online middleman service to process the returns through. (Or, perhaps more ambitiously, operate its own e-file Transmitter.)

    Anyway, I'm a big fan of TurboTax for the Web. I don't need to download anything, or worry about upgrading each year, and the cost is somewhat dependent on the complexity of my return and the added features I want, so I don't end up buying a shrink-wrapped flat-rate option that I end up underusing.

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly