Computers can win at chess, but not at taxes «
Despite big improvements to tax-preparation software over the years, most Americans still prefer to delegate the dreaded annual chore to a pro.
Indeed, roughly 60% of individual tax returns are done by a preparer, according to data from the Internal Revenue Service. That percentage has barely budged over the past decade, even as Americans have embraced technology for more and more financial tasks. “We haven’t seen as big a shift toward online services as we thought we might have,” says Jeremy Edwards, a lead analyst with IBISWorld, a market research firm.
Lane V. Erickson / Shutterstock.com So why is it that a computer can beat a chess grandmaster, but not a CPA? Even though most tax returns are fairly simple, many consumers feel they need help navigating and understanding the ever-changing tax code, especially if they are higher earners facing large tax bills, says Edwards. “The people who are most technology savvy and are prepared to do their taxes online have a lot of income and want professional help to collect the most tax breaks and deductions,” he says. Some people will never be converted over to tax software, H&R Block CEO Bill Cobb told MarketWatch. “It’s a little bit like cat people and dog people,” he says.
Some financial experts contend the industry just has a software problem. More people might break up with their tax advisers if the preparation software available could streamline the process of scanning and interpreting all the paperwork, and if the programs offered clearer guidance on filing decisions and deductions, says Jon Stein, Founder and CEO of Betterment.com , an online investment firm. “The user experience of online tax services is too complex,” says Stein. “It’s a lot like the investing space, where the typical solutions are too time consuming, frustrating, and overwhelm you with unnecessary options.”
Why is it that a computer can beat a chess grandmaster, but not a CPA?
Tax software providers are in fact working to improve the filing process, by cutting down on the number of questions consumers have to answer and how much data they have to type in. Both TurboTax and H&R Block, for example, offer returning customers the option to automatically download their personal and financial information from the prior year’s tax return. Both firms also make it possible to download W2 forms and other income information directly from participating employers and banks. And this year TurboTax says it is offering more detailed definitions of the numbers and information consumers need to input themselves, as well as explaining why their refunds may have changed. H&R Block is using a new interface that tells consumers what they need next to complete the return, among other features.
The IRS has also tried to simplify the tax filing process by introducing Free-file, a program that allows free e-filing for Americans earning $58,000 a year or less. But only about 40 million individuals have used the program since it was launched in 2003, says Edwards. (Roughly 140 million individual tax returns are filed each year.)
But where tax preparation often falls short is that many Americans are too confused by the tax code, even when they do have fairly simple returns, tax pros say. Some people seek professional guidance after facing major life changes, such as buying a house, getting married, having children or moving. “There are numerous and conflicting credits available; which are the ones you should take advantage of?” says Edward Karl, vice president of taxation for the American Institute of CPAs in Washington, D.C. “I don’t know that software can help you make those decisions.”
And it isn’t just the highest earners who want help making sure they’re taking advantage of as many tax deductions and loopholes as possible, says Roberton Williams, an economist with the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Low-income workers may seek guidance on whether they qualify for the earned-income tax credit or child-related credits, says Williams.
More people might use software to do it themselves if tax software providers would offer more detailed explanations of each step in the filing process and walk users through the significance of each figure being calculated, says Edwards of IBISWorld. That might help remove what is still a major obstacle keeping many people from doing their own taxes—the fear that they are filling out their returns incorrectly or not paying the proper amount in taxes, he says.
For many people, though, the decision to have their taxes done by a pro comes down to pure dread. The majority of Americans (56%) don’t like doing their income taxes, with many of them saying the process requires too much paperwork, and they are afraid of making mistakes, according to a national survey by the Pew Research Center done last April. Not surprisingly, 60% of those who said they don’t like doing taxes said they prefer to have someone else do it for them. “Doing taxes is a chore and it’s not something people want to think about or care about or do,” says Sasan Goodarzi, senior vice president and general manager of Intuit’s TurboTax business. “There’s nothing easier than going to somebody else.”