Evaluating IRS Free File
Touted by the Internal Revenue Service as fast, safe, and free, since 2002 Free File has enabled millions of taxpayers to prepare and file their individual income tax returns electronically. After more than a decade, however, the IRS Free File Alliance has delivered tax preparation choices that are limited at best for taxpayers who are blind and visually impaired.
With easy access to the Internet and use of access software such as JAWS and Window Eyes, IRS Free File would seem to be an ideal tax preparation solution taxpayers with visual impairments. Indeed, a long-standing and explicit objective of the Free File program is to make electronic filing more available to underserved populations.
Given affiliation with the IRS, one might assume Free File software is accessible. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. The first hint of the lack of accessibility is that after selecting a particular Free File vendor, you will encounter a message that you are leaving the IRS website along with a disclaimer regarding responsibility for the vendor's products.
If trying Free File for the first time, perhaps you will be fortunate and find that your preferred software choice is sufficiently accessible to complete your tax return. But if not, are you likely to try another vendor? And if you have a repeat experience, how many more Free File partners are you willing to evaluate before concluding that looking further is unlikely to yield a better result?
As a former tax practitioner and experienced JAWS user on the hunt for accessible tax software, I evaluated each of the 14 Free File offers for 2013. If you haven't already identified a Free File solution, the results of these assessments will hopefully help save some time and frustration.
If you're already using Free File, you might wish to try out an alternative product from among the recommendations. I'll also touch on two other IRS-hosted choices and assess the need for improving IRS-sponsored tax preparation alternatives.
It's not possible to discuss each of the 14 separate product offerings in depth within the confines of this article. Rather, I performed a mid-level review of Free File, making general observations and guiding comments, with limited comparison of specific software. Ultimately, the usability of any of the recommendations will require personal evaluation that depends in part on screen reader proficiency, comfort level with e-commerce, and degree of persistence.
The process undertaken was to select and test core elements of each program to determine whether a tax return of basic to intermediate difficulty could be prepared independently using JAWS 15, Windows 7, and Internet Explorer 11. The assessment included initial account setup, entry of basic personal information, input of various items such as Form W-2, interest income, pension and Social Security benefits, IRA contributions, and various itemized deductions. This was followed by creating a state return and entering state-specific information, reviewing the completed federal and state returns, and initializing the e-file process. Since only sample data was used in each case, actual e-file submission was not performed.
After leaving the Free File home page and proceeding to the product selection page, you are greeted with a brief explanation of Free File criteria and a list of the current IRS-approved vendors, along with more specific eligibility requirements for each product. The order of the vendors is shuffled with each visit to eliminate any suggestion of preference.
Each Free File partner sets its own eligibility criteria, based on income, age, state residency, eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, and military status. If your adjusted gross income is less than $58,000, you will find one or more free federal software options. The $58,000 limit is reviewed annually and represents the income threshold below which 70% of the population is eligible to use Free File.
The IRS advises that once at the company's website, you should review its information to assure the offer meets your needs. For example, some vendors offer free state tax returns and others charge a fee. You can either browse the list of software offerings or use the Help Me Find Free File Software tool.
For 12 of the 14 current vendors, accounts were set up without any significant snags. The exceptions were Tax Simple and 1040NOW, which landed on inaccessible screens after executing the control to create a new account.
Once in a particular program, the vendor provides some combination of screen-sensitive help for the associated input, as well as links to such resources as a Q&A knowledge base, IRS form instructions, e-mail support, or telephone help. As you might expect, be prepared to stay on hold for telephone assistance.
In my judgment, 5 of the 14 current Free File offerings are sufficiently accessible to enable you to prepare your return independently. This is not to say, however, that these programs do not have serious shortcomings.
A recurring issue, for example, is poor table formatting on the Form W-2 screen, requiring a lot of tabbing back and forth along with a confident memory in order to associate specific fields with column headings that are described only once. Another frequent issue is the placement of radio buttons, sometimes labeled only at the column heading, before the associated question, requiring a lot of extra back and forth arrow key navigation.
It is noteworthy that the Free File software offered by four of the leading names in the tax preparation industry, H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxAct, and Liberty were each found to be inaccessible. A common problem with these four programs is the controls for moving back and forth between screens. A frequent occurrence with H&R Block, for example, is for the screen to freeze when attempting to advance, requiring rebooting of the computer in some instances.
With the Liberty eSmartTax program, a workaround to this problem is to press the enter key on the "Back to Top" link after initially pressing enter on either the "Next" or "Back" button as desired. Also, JAWS does not recognize the primary navigation controls with the Liberty program. Pressing the enter key on the text description of the desired return section worked, but only sporadically.
The CAPTCHA audio alternative for the ezTaxReturn account setup was incomprehensible. This deficiency was given a pass and sighted assistance was obtained for help getting in. Once inside, the primary navigation links are identified by unlabeled graphics only. A user would therefore need to re-start the sequential interview process in order to reach a previously visited screen--not an acceptable workaround in my view.
Of the five accessible programs, the top choices are 1040.com and FreeTaxUSA. These programs are tab-key friendly with adequate descriptions. Movement between fields is fluid and natural. Certain data fields prepopulate with a likely response. Radio buttons are preselected with the typical response, saving time and a lot of extra keystrokes.
Other recommendations to try out are Free1040TaxReturn.com, efileTaxReturns, and TaxSlayer. These programs are generally accessible as long as you are willing and able to work with some shortcomings in the Form W-2 input screens, and are willing to routinely perform back-and-forth arrow key navigation to read questions and descriptions, as opposed to hearing a field description with tab key movement alone.
TaxSlayer includes a free state return for participating states, but is only available free to taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes that are less than $30,000. The other four accessible choices add a fee for state return preparation, ranging from $12.95 to $24.95 at the time of this writing.
Free File Fillable
For taxpayers whose income is not below the $58,000 threshold for Free File eligibility, Free File Fillable may be a suitable alternative, but the program does not include a state return option. This utility essentially provides a screen shot of the various tax forms and performs limited calculations, with access to the IRS form instructions as a source of help. It is suitable for people who can identify tax forms that are applicable to their situation and do not need the guided assistance of interview-style software.
Unfortunately, however, the program is largely inaccessible, with numerous unlabeled fields and controls. This was brought to the attention of the IRS in February 2013 through the Taxpayer Advocacy Program and the matter was given systemic advocacy case status. But the recent rollout of the 2013 program reveals that Free File Fillable remains inaccessible.
Looking Ahead to the Future of Accessible Free File Tax Programs
Section 508 of the Workforce Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended in 1998, requires that information technology developed or purchased by the Federal government must be accessible to people with disabilities. In addition, the US Attorney General has taken the position that commercial websites are a place of public accommodation within the meaning of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This raises the question of why executive power has not yet been used to assure that all Free File vendors make their products fully accessible.
Although a Free File partner might not be directly compensated by the federal government for software development in the Section 508 context, the IRS provides consideration to these vendors in the form of access to a specific customer base as the result of Free File participation, along with the benefit of IRS approval and the opportunity to market upgrades and other fee-based services to Free File users. In any case, the Free File program clearly serves the interests of the IRS, despite its effort to disclaim any responsibility for the products offered by the Free File Alliance partners.
By contrast, the IRS recognizes its Section 508 responsibility to make individual tax forms accessible by supporting fillable PDF forms, available on the IRS website. Unfortunately, these stand-alone forms do not offer computational capability and so are not a serious tax compliance alternative for a blind person, except perhaps for a very highly determined user preparing a simple return or an informational filing such as a change of address, extension of time to file, etc. In addition, these forms cannot be submitted electronically.
As illustrated by this example, meeting Section 508 standards alone does not assure that a product will be an effective alternative. Hopefully, in the future the IRS and its Free File Alliance partners will involve users who are visually impaired in beta testing of Free File products in advance of their release.
Free File and Free File Fillable are potentially wonderful resources for blind and visually impaired taxpayers. Under the current Free File model, however, until the IRS uses its power to require that its private industry partners make their products compliant with Section 508 as a condition of Free File participation, these taxpayers with visual impairments will likely continue to have only limited Free File choices, along with the burden of identifying accessible products from year to year.
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