The IRS is shaking things up with plans to develop an online system that allows taxpayers to file their returns directly with the government, free of charge. This initiative is set to disrupt the traditional process which often involves commercial tax preparation services like TurboTax, but not everyone is thrilled about this potential game changer.
On the horizon is a pilot test for this revolutionary program, slated to kick off next year. Government-run filing systems aren’t new globally, but they’ve yet to take off in the United States. This new endeavor by the IRS, however, is poised to meet substantial resistance from the tax-preparation industry, which is currently worth around $14 billion.
Rick Heineman, a spokesperson for Intuit, the parent company of TurboTax, didn’t mince words when he described the IRS’s move as “wholly redundant,” insisting that this solution seeking a problem could potentially cost taxpayers billions and harm the most vulnerable Americans.
On the flip side, the average American taxpayer currently shells out around $140 per year for tax preparation, as per IRS data. Although a free-filing option is available through the IRS website, courtesy of an industry alliance, it’s only utilized by approximately 2% of taxpayers.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., attributed this low usage rate to alleged sabotage by tax prep companies, accusing them of putting their profit margins above the needs of taxpayers. This follows a $141 million settlement paid by TurboTax last year to resolve a complaint about misleading advertising for free tax preparation, which allegedly lured customers into expensive upgrades.
Despite the controversy, IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel emphasized that the proposed government-run filing system would be optional. He reassured taxpayers that they will always have choices when it comes to filing their taxes, whether it’s using tax software, a professional service, or the good old paper tax return.
The direct filing system has found favor among Democrats, with legislation passed last year allocating $15 million for the IRS to explore the idea. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., was a vocal advocate, citing the need for a more cost-effective and efficient system.
Interest in this government-run filing system has been high, according to IRS surveys. About 72% of taxpayers expressed interest in a free direct filing system, with younger people, those with limited English skills, and DIY tax filers showing the most enthusiasm.
However, concerns have been raised about whether the IRS could provide the largest refund or the smallest tax bill — a potential conflict that commercial tax preparers have been quick to highlight. Moreover, the IRS estimates that setting up and operating a direct file system could cost the government between $64 million and $249 million annually, depending on user numbers and the complexity of returns.
One of the key hurdles to overcome is how to integrate state tax returns into the system to make it more appealing. Looking ahead, the system could potentially be used to pre-fill parts of a tax return using information from employers and other sources.
The next phase involves letting real taxpayers test the system next year. The goal is to evaluate its success, learn valuable lessons, and use this knowledge to refine the tool, as stated by Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo. The specifics of the experiment, including the scale and the types of eligible taxpayers, are still under consideration.
The Implications for Current Tax Preparation Software
The IRS’s move towards a government-run filing system has significant implications for the current tax preparation software industry. Companies like TurboTax, H&R Block, and others have long dominated the scene, providing users with digital tools to help navigate the often complex process of tax filing.
A free, direct-to-government filing system could potentially disrupt the industry’s business model, possibly leading to a loss in market share. These companies earn revenue not only from their tax filing services but also from add-ons and upsells, such as expedited returns, audit defenses, and other related services.
However, there’s also a different perspective to consider. The proposed IRS system might prompt these companies to innovate and improve their services to remain competitive. It could inspire the development of more sophisticated software that offers enhanced features or superior user experiences to set them apart from the free government service.
For instance, tax preparation software companies might choose to focus more on providing personalized tax advice, a feature that the IRS, as a government agency, may not be able to offer. This could range from tax planning to strategies for maximizing deductions, thereby providing a value-added service that goes beyond basic tax preparation.
Furthermore, not all taxpayers might be comfortable using a government-run system due to privacy concerns or the fear of audits. Tax preparation software could position itself as a safer, more private alternative.
Another potential impact could be the growth of partnerships between tax preparation software companies and financial institutions or fintech companies. By integrating tax preparation into broader financial management tools, these software providers could offer a more comprehensive service that extends beyond tax season.
Ultimately, the IRS’s move could be a wake-up call for tax preparation software companies to rethink their strategies and adapt to a changing landscape. It will be fascinating to watch how these companies evolve and innovate in response to this development. The competition could very well lead to better services and options for consumers, which is a win in any scenario.