Tax Information on the Web
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 1999; Page H06
Who would have thought the Internal Revenue Service's own Web site would be so thorough, so accessible, so useful and so -- can this be true? -- so cool?
Written with a webby breeziness that belies its origins in one of the government's least humorous agencies, this site is actually amusing to read, at least at first. The address above takes you to an ersatz newspaper called the Digital Daily, which bears the motto "Faster Than a Speeding 1040EZ" and counts down the days left until April 15. From this home page you can link to tax tips, regulations, frequently asked questions, forms, publications and so on.
What makes the site cool is its sheer helpfulness. You want a form? As long as you have a decent printer (laser or ink jet) or a fax machine, you can have any form the IRS publishes in minutes. We tried it out several times and found it virtually flawless, but we have to admit The Post has a nice, fast Internet connection and nice, fast laser printers. Even allowing for slower service over normal phone lines, though, this is still remarkably handy. There are plenty of non-IRS sites that offer forms, but our cursory search turned up none as comprehensive or as universally cheap (forms are free here).
As for tax advice, it is copious and usually written in plain English. One of the best features is an interactive Q&A gizmo that answers 30 basic questions (Do I have to pay capital gains taxes? Can I deduct my home as a business expense? Can I deduct my all my mortgage interest?) by walking you through a series of yes-or-no questions and giving you a verdict based on your responses. If you don't get the verdict you want, you can go back and fiddle with your answers until you do. Try that with a real live IRS agent.
The only place where the site fails to deliver on its promise to de-jargonize everything is in its summaries of proposed regulations. (Example: "The proposed regulations are necessary to clarify that certain distributions in redemption of stock are treated as extraordinary dividends notwithstanding provisions that otherwise might exempt the distributions from extraordinary dividend treatment." Yow.)
But you don't need to know stuff like this to do your taxes, and the stuff you do need is pretty jargon-free. For example: "Q: I use part of my living room as an office. Can I take a deduction for business use of my home? A: In general, if you use a part of your home for both personal and business purposes, no expenses for business use of that part are deductible. Exceptions apply for qualified day-care providers and for the storage of inventory or product samples used in the business."
One minor complaint: Whoever writes the intro material that frames the various sections seems to come from the let's-keep-it-bright school of copywriting. (Example: "In case you don't have a pre-printed envelope, there's even a map to help you find out where to file. So, now that you've got exactly what you need, things will definitely go a whole lot smoother.") This cheery tone gets cloying after a while -- after all, we're talking taxes here. But that's a tiny quibble about what is otherwise the hands-down mother of all tax sites.
Internal Revenue Service (www.irs.ustreas.gov/prod/cover.html)
What's not here: No actual tax-preparation or refund calculators; for that, see the commercial sites below. Also, the IRS will not link you much beyond itself; for useful non-governmental links, see link sites below.
As you would expect of a place that thrives on the complex and the unintelligible, the Internet is home to hundreds (perhaps thousands) of tax sites. You can find chat groups, message boards, accounting firms, tax calculators, tax-preparation engines and even the entire tax code (an outdated 1993 version, but the whole thing). Here's a guide to just a handful of jumping-off points -- sites valuable as organized groups of links to the places you really want to go:
This site is not too shy to list a dozen reviews touting how terrific it is, but it earns the praise as a well-organized guide to more than 100 other sites, including government, tax preparation, tax tips, tax news, associations, books, newsletters, newsgroups, message boards, tax law, tax software and on and on. Unlike other links pages, this one provides capsule descriptions for many sites to help you decide whether you really want to go there. If it's not listed here, it's hard to imagine that you'd want or need it -- but not impossible: See Tax and Accounting Sites below.
NetGuide: How to Do Your Taxes Online
Tax and Accounting Sites Directory
Motley Fool's Investment Tax Guide
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