In my last post, I mentioned the new "Free Fillable Forms" option that the IRS Free File program launched last year.
I was thinking that the Free Fillable Forms might be a possible option that technology-averse preparers like Robert Flach could recommend to any of their clients who might want to efile their own returns themselves. A simple easy to use forms-based interface ought to make it easy for Robert's clients to simply transcribe his neat handwritten work into an on-line form and efile it.
I hereby withdraw my suggestion.
In theory, the Free Fillable Forms option seems like an elegant solution available to any taxpayers who want to efile their tax returns simply by typing in the data directly into fields on the standard IRS forms.
However, after some searching on the Internet, I have been unable to find any reports from taxpayers who tried the Free Fillable Forms service and were happy with it.
I found quite a few unhappy campers who reported bad experiences: a computer science grad student here, a Christian Science Monitor financial reporter here, as well as numerous anonymous bloggers and forum participants.
Even the National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson tried it and had trouble using it. According to Forbes Magazine: "Olson herself decided to try out Fillable Forms on her home Apple to file her own 1040 this year; she found herself unable to print or save a copy of her filing."
Nina is smart and knowledgeable, a tax lawyer with decades of experience as a tax professional. If she can't get the program to print or save, something is very wrong!
So who makes this "Free Fillable Forms" product anyway?
All the other Free File products (TurboTax, TaxCut, TaxAct, etc., etc., etc.) proudly tell you the name of the company that is producing it. It makes a lot of sense for the companies to promote their names on their Free File products. It's clear that most companies offering free products hope that some taxpayers will eventually upgrade to their fancier offerings in the future, perhaps when their incomes increase and/or their financial circumstances become more complicated.
But apparently no company wanted to put its name on the "Free Fillable Forms" option. Under the terms of the "Free File Memorandum of Understanding," the Free Fillable Forms option is "unbranded."
An "unbranded product" means that the provider's reputation is not at risk if the product works poorly, as many users have reported.
I am also extremely uncomfortable about the idea of transmitting my very sensitive and confidential private data to a private third party company that won't even tell me its name!
So I'm simply unwilling to even test it myself. And I certainly, in good conscience, would not recommend it to anyone else.
According to the Forbes article, Free Fillable Forms is actually an Intuit product. If that is true, I must say that I am quite disappointed. Intuit also makes TurboTax, which has some annoying glitches, but it has worked reasonably well for me in the past.
A well-executed simple, elegant, and easy to use "Free Fillable Forms" option is a good idea.
And I agree with Nina Olson. The Free Fillable Forms ought to be hosted on secure IRS servers, so taxpayers know that their sensitive and confidential data is going directly to the IRS, not to an unnamed private company.