Smartphones are for Fortnite. Or for scanning your favorite news app. But are they for taxes?
A surprising number of people apparently think so. About eight million people used the TurboTax app to file their returns on mobile last year. Credit Karma said that 20 percent of its tax customers used their phones to file in 2018, and that nearly a third of them did so in less than an hour, which suggests they didn’t run into time-sucking trouble along the way.
Alas, I wasn’t one of them.
I’ve always entrusted taxes to my accountant, but when I was assigned to evaluate the process of doing one’s taxes by smartphone, I figured the software would be wizardly enough. My family’s situation isn’t that complicated: a couple of W-2s, a couple of kids, some miscellaneous income.
But my experience filing by phone felt like a chore, with a fair amount of grunt work, compounded by the small screen and tiny keyboard that make many tasks harder than on a desktop computer. There are about 463 things I’d rather do than read I.R.S. Publication 463 to figure out whether mileage is a deductible expense, yet when I summoned help through the TurboTax app, an agent suggested that I should. Other apps also raised questions I couldn’t easily answer, and I even identified an error.
I sampled three mobile apps, from TurboTax, Credit Karma and H&R Block. All of them said I’d receive a refund of roughly the same amount, give or take $40, so I was somewhat reassured that my returns were accurate. But even after going through the process three times on my iPhone, I had lingering questions, and I wouldn’t have been willing to file our return to the Internal Revenue Service without human intervention.
It wasn’t all bad. Parts of the mobile experience were surprisingly painless. H&R Block went a step further than its two competitors, offering me the chance to upload my family’s 2017 tax return to help us get started. I was convinced it wouldn’t work, but it did, seamlessly, all from my phone. This saved me the grief of entering four Social Security numbers and other tediousness.
Snapping a photo of our W-2s and uploading them on all three apps instead of having to type all of that information into my phone was similarly easy, though the results were far from perfect, which really defeats the purpose. The apps transferred a lot of the numbers, but I had to add a few lines and correct others on TurboTax and H&R Block — and a few more lines on Credit Karma. It’s true that taking photos did save some time, and the app providers said some taxpayers use this feature, then complete the task from the comfort of their larger machines.
The hardest part of this exercise involved getting assistance on how to categorize my husband’s nonwage income, for his job as a television host.
Credit Karma didn’t offer any human helpers. On TurboTaxLive’s app, I asked to speak with a live agent — a feature that is also available in the online version — and was given a phone number to call. Initially, I reached an automaton. After explaining that I was calling about business deductions, it texted me several related links, but they were three years old so I wasn’t sure they’d apply under the new tax law.
So I held for an actual enrolled agent, someone with qualifications granted by the I.R.S. After nearly 40 minutes on the phone, I still wasn’t sure that I had definitive information, the kind of answer my human accountant would have in four minutes.
But after I completed my return, there was a photo of a smiling C.P.A. with 19 years of experience who said I could book a video call.
I tried to reach her but encountered technical glitches and gave up after three tries. Eventually, someone called me back the old-fashioned way. I put the app down and shared my laptop screen with her, another failure for the mobile experience. We discussed what expenses were kosher and she explained why we should receive a new tax break called the qualified business income deduction. In the end, I was reassured.
It took a couple of tries to reach a human helper through H&R Block’s app before I finally gave up. I don’t know whether the service’s “tax pro review” would have addressed my questions — including advice that conflicted with what TurboTax told me, or why it inaccurately suggested I could deduct interest and dividends from our 529 plans. (When I later brought this to their attention, the company told me it would update its language.)
If you have a relatively straightforward situation and are willing to spend at least a couple of hours trying this on your own phone, you might see how you fare. You have nothing to lose (except maybe your sanity) because you generally don’t have to pay anything until you file.
As for me, I’m going to stick with my human accountant.
Tara Siegel Bernard covers personal finance. Before joining The Times in 2008, she was deputy managing editor at FiLife, a personal finance website, and an editor at CNBC. She also worked at Dow Jones and contributed regularly to The Wall Street Journal. @tarasbernard
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