This is a relatively long review of TurboTax 2012 Online, software for completing tax forms and submitting them to both the federal and state authorities. I’ve updated the review to reflect the changes to the software in 2012 (for filing 2011 tax returns).
Recently, the IRS began accepting federal tax returned filed electronically. Even before the IRS began accepting returns, you could still have completed your tax forms online through software. Programs like TurboTax, H&R Block, and Jackson Hewitt have been accepting customers and holding off on filing until now. This delay affected those who had itemized deductions, claimed the tuition and fees deduction, or claimed the sales tax deduction.
Many taxpayers are just getting started with their 2011 federal returns now. I’ve been using the services of an accountant for the past few years, and he was able to cut through the more confusing tax consequences of owning a business, saving me $15,000. Before my tax situation was complicated, however, I completed my taxes online using various software. Following a series of questions, completing and filing my 1040 form was easy.
Every year, the companies that provide tax e-filing services like TurboTax and H&R Block tweak their products, not only for the latest tax laws, but to improve features, making the process of tax filing easier. I took a look at TurboTax to see what changes the newest edition has to offer.
The first thing I noticed with TurboTax is the wide variety of products they have available. There is an option that is completely free for filing federal returns, but it is limited. This free version is for taxpayers whose returns can be completed using the 1040-EZ form, a simplified version of the 1040 form. If you have deductions, investments, a mortgage, or self-employment income, or if you want a step-by-step hand-holding guide to completing the forms, you will not be able to take advantage of the TurboTax Free Edition.
TurboTax offers several flavors in addition to the Free Edition, including Deluxe, Premier, Home & Business, and Business, each to handling more complicated tax situations above and beyond the lighter editions. The Deluxe Edition focuses on capturing all of your deductions. The Premier Edition does deductions, as well, but also includes the forms you need for investments like stocks, mutual funds, and rental properties. Home & Business covers all of the above as well as self-employment income, and the Business Edition is for anyone who is a partner in or owner of a corporation.
The editions are flexible; start with the Deluxe Edition, and as you come across features you need, TurboTax will ask if you’d like to upgrade — without charging you yet — to the edition that takes all of your needs into account. I started the Deluxe Edition to see how far I could go. I saw that for the most part none of the upgrades are needed if you are confident about your tax accounting abilities and are willing to enter your information directly into forms rather than have the software hold your hand through every decision.
Here is an overview of my entire process of completing my federal and state tax returns with TurboTax.
I am a returning customer, and although I didn’t file my taxes using TurboTax last year, I did begin entering my information to test the software. TurboTax recalled last year’s information, although I didn’t enter accurate information at that time, and used it to get me started.
As you can see, some of the found information looks a little odd. If you click on the image here, you’ll see that TurboTax thinks my adjusted gross income for 2010 is a negative $106,905. This may be a result of last year’s incomplete information. Nevertheless, I continued. This year, TurboTax is no longer emphasizing the GPS device metaphor that helped guide filers through the process last year, but still retains the idea that filing your taxes is like traveling down a road.
Free tax advice from TurboTax experts
This year, TurboTax has added a new, useful feature: free on-demand tax advice from a tax expert.
While TurboTax seems to encourage users to exhaust all other options, like searching frequently asked questions and participating in the community, before contacting a live representative, this feature could prove useful for tax filers who are used to interacting with a human being to solve tax-related issues. The experts can answer questions related to filing Forms 1040, 1065, 1120, and 1120S, so even business owners can take advantage of the free advice. Be aware that by using the free advice service, you’d free TurboTax and Intuit from any liability, and are agreeing to binding arbitration if any legal issues arise from your use of the service. That’s not a customer-friendly policy, but it has come to be standard among many types of financial services.
The experts are typically seasoned tax preparers, with CPA certification and experience. When I began to initiate a chat on a Tuesday morning, there was a delay of about ten minutes before someone was available. If I were to chat over the phone rather than online, the delay would have been longer.
The first step in the tax filing process covers personal information. TurboTax asks the taxpayer to check any life changes that occurred during the year from among a list to begin the section covering income.
Alongside the checklist is a link to TurboTax’s Live Community. This is a place where taxpayers can look for help from other users, the most experienced and helpful being SuperUsers, and from TurboTax employees. These guides are very helpful and thorough, but I warn anyone against making significant decisions based on answers that are not tailored to your specific situation and not backed up by a tax accountant who is familiar with you. The Live Community is great for the most typical and basic tax questions, such as, “If I became married in December, can I still file as a single taxpayer?”
If you need answers to questions specifically related to your situation, you can use the new feature mentioned above to speak to a tax expert.
After submitting my choices on the form above, TurboTax recommended I upgrade to Home & Business for an upgrade price of $45, but noted I still have the option of staying with the Deluxe Edition. Home & Business offers more guidance, but at this point, not more tax features, I opted to stay with the Deluxe Edition. I continued to enter my personal income information.
My employer — now former employer — does not seem to offer the ability to load my W2 data directly into TurboTax, so I located my form online and pulled the numbers myself, just like in the old days.
After completing my W2, TurboTax guided me through more income possibilities. For interest income, TurboTax has the ability of downloading your tax information from your bank or broker. The list of institutions offering this ability isn’t large, and many of my banks were not listed. I did give this a try with Vanguard. TurboTax asked for my Vanguard user name and password, and within seconds determined that I had dividend income of about $315 from this source. In the interest of time, I didn’t bother with any other dividend or interest income now, the software is flexible so you can return to any section at any time.
TurboTax remembered that I purchased employee stock in the past, and asked if I sold any shares, which would have resulted in income. This is a great benefit to filing your taxes with the same software each year; the software “gets to know you,” and asks the right questions based on how you’ve filed in the past. As you go through the income sections, if you state that you don’t have a certain type of income but TurboTax thinks you should, it will flag the category to let you know that you’ll need to review the section.
For my business income, TurboTax prompted me to enter the income I received on 1099 forms, stating that these forms are required for anyone who has paid the business more than $600 for services. With a corporation, I’ve found this to be incorrect, and some businesses will not send my business a 1099, and according to my tax accountant, I’m not required to send 1099s to other businesses that I pay more than $600. This rule would have changed, however, and 1099 forms would have been required, if Congress didn’t quickly repeal a much-hated provision of the health care reform law. TurboTax required 1099s in this section because this section is for “Schedule C” businesses, like sole proprietors or LLCs treated as sole proprietors. My business is an S Corporation — or, more accurately, an LLC treated as an S Corporation — so while most self-employed individuals will follow TurboTax’s guidelines for self-employment income, I would need to wait and include income from Schedule K-1, filed by my business, possibly in addition to a W-2 for the business.
As of today, the IRS has not yet finalized this year’s K-1 form, so I would not be able to submit my federal tax return yet.
After completing the income and answering questions about foreign bank accounts (I have none), TurboTax provided a snapshot of my money, and suggested I try out Mint.com to determine how I spend my money and find options for investing in an IRA. I skipped these suggestions, though I do recommend Mint.com, and proceeded to the section covering deductions and credits.
Deductions and credits
Once again, I followed the “EasyGuide” to make the most out of the suggestions provided by the software. In this section, I reviewed whether I could claim deductions and credits for mortgage interest, the homebuyer credit, the Making Word Pay credit, and more. For charitable contributions, I was easily able to enter the recurring monthly payments I made to non-profit organizations as well as the lump sum payments I sent to charities.
After completing the questionnaire, TurboTax performed an integrity check to ensure I captured all the deductions and credits I could be entitled to. When the analysis was complete, TurboTax offered some suggestions for possible missed credits. TurboTax was under the impression that I may qualify for credits I didn’t take, like the Earned Income Credit for children.
After I reviewed my final federal tax numbers, TurboTax transferred the relevant information to my state return. After a few state-specific questions, I was able to claim a property tax credit — homeowners and renters both qualify for a credit of some sort. When the process was complete, TurboTax reviewed my information and determined my risk for an audit was low, but noted two warning flags:
- I included Schedule C income.
- I had more than $100,000 in business income.
Both of these might increase the chance of being audited. In the final return that I file with my accountant, I won’t have Schedule C income. I won’t be filing my finalized return through TurboTax this year, as I prefer to work with an accountant. The Schedule C income above was is included here just as a test. The entire process was not without some confusion.
Error checking and support
Last year, after TurboTax reviewed my federal return and suggested child-related deductions and credits, I tried to determine why. It looked as if TurboTax was assigning me a credit for adopting a child — a credit I didn’t enter. I reached out as many customers do in the Age of Information: on Twitter. The customer service account is @TeamTurboTax, so you can mention that account in a message on Twitter to get their attention.
It wasn’t long before I received responses, most from people recognizing that I did not, in fact, adopt a child:
The official response from Customer Support came only a few minutes later. We discussed the issue through private messages on Twitter before I realized that I was looking at the wrong column. I expected the final page listing income, deductions, and credits, would compare the previous tax year with the current tax year, as I believe they software had done in the past, but the first column represented the current tax year and the second column listed the difference between what I was claiming and the maximum I’d be allowed to claim for each credit and deduction. TurboTax properly listed $0 for the adoption credit. That’s a big relief in many ways.
I appreciate the quick response from Intuit’s Customer Support via Twitter, and this is a feature that helps TurboTax rise above some of their competitors.
Printing and filing the returns
You have the option of filing electronically or by mail, but electronically is almost always the better option. If the government owes you a refund, you will receive it much faster, particularly if you have a bank account for direct deposit. You must pay before printing your return for filing by mail or filing electronically. I completed by entire return using the Deluxe Edition, for $29.95. The New Jersey state edition added an extra $36.95 to that total, the most I’ve ever paid to file a state return without an accountant.
On the payment screen, I noted that TurboTax guarantees their calculations; if the IRS or your state charges you a penalty due to TurboTax’s error, they will pay the penalty and interest. It’s not hard to calculate numbers correctly; the danger is in entering them correctly in the first place — and human error is not covered under this guarantee.
Once you submit your return for electronic filing, TurboTax will send you updates to let you know when they are accepted by the IRS and your state’s tax authority. After that point, you can check the status of your federal and state refunds.
I was surprised how easily TurboTax, even the version just one step up from the Free Edition, handled my complicated tax situation. If I had finished my corporate tax returns first, I would have had everything I needed to finish my personal federal and state returns in under a few hours. It’s important to have all your forms together before you sit down to get started. Even though TurboTax lets you stop and return to the place you left off at a later time, it’s generally to focus and get everything done as soon as you have everything available. These days, you’ll probably receive some tax forms online and some in the mail, so it’s getting more difficult to keep track of everything. The more organized you are, the smoother the tax filing process.
Consumerism Commentary is an authorized affiliate of Intuit. Intuit did not compensate Consumerism Commentary for this review.