March 27, 2008

Filing US federal taxes under Linux

Author: Joe Barr

Filling out tax returns has traditionally been an area where Linux comes up short compared to the proprietary platforms, but you actually have several options for using commercial income tax products on a Linux platform. Here's a quick look at three commercial tax offerings I found that work just fine using Ubuntu 7.10 and Firefox, even though two of the three vendors warn Linux users they are not supported. Translation: Don't look for vendor help if you run into problems.

Each product I looked at follows a Q&A format which, while it saves you have having to stare directly at a complicated form, asks you for specific data in a specific sequence. If you're like me, you'll spend a lot more time gathering all the info than you will actually entering it, so have on hand all your raw data and forms (W-2s, 1099s, financial statements) before you sit down with any tax preparation package.

I used a standard test case across all three products: an individual filing a US federal tax return with itemized deductions and earnings income from W-2 wages, interest, and dividends.

All the products establish a secure connection to a Web site when you begin your session, and I was able to log off and then back in to continue work on my return without incident.

H&R Block's Tango

The first thing I saw when I tried to use H&R Block's Tango was
a warning that it might not work correctly because Linux was not a supported platform. Life is risky, Tango advised, but it allowed me to continue. I chose the "Start Free" option, which allows you to enter your tax data and go all the way through the process up to the point of filing without having to pay.

Tango's interface is picturesque and smooth. If you choose your software tools based on eye appeal, read no further -- this is the one for you. You'll never see a 1040A or any other tax form as you go through Tango's guided online interview. Enter the required information when you're prompted for it, then sit back and let the software do the rest.

When you're finished entering and reviewing the data, you come to the fork in the road. You can either pay $70, then continue by printing, saving, or e-filing your return, or you can stop there. If you don't pay, you'll have no tax return to file, but on the other hand, it didn't cost you a dime to find out where you stand on this year's taxes.

H&R Block also offers a completely free package that includes free e-filing, but only handles simple returns using the 1040EZ form. The $30 Premium version is required for itemized deductions, and there are other options starting at $100 that provide a live tax consultant to answer your questions as you go through the process.

TurboTax Deluxe

In spite of the fact that I used TurboTax on Ubuntu Linux with Firefox last year, you wouldn't know that it could be done based on the company's
warning screen. There are a number of supported versions of Windows, and others for Apple, but none for Linux. As Tango did, TurboTax lets you continue if you are using a non-supported platform, but warns, "If you continue without upgrading, we may not be able to assist you with any issues you might encounter." Note the quaint but unenlightened usage of the word "upgrade."

I tested TurboTax Deluxe, which fit the test case very well. If you need to file state as well as federal returns, they are available at extra cost. Once again, I made use of the "Start Free" option, which allows you to do everything but print, save, or electronically file the return. When you reach that point, you'll need to pay $30 to continue.

It took less than an hour to enter the test case, including the time it took to search for all allowable deductions, and then running the return though a federal return error checking routine and audit reviews after finishing data entry.

TurboTax offers other online packages ranging in price from $50 to $100.



For the third product I chose the free version of 2nd Story Software's TaxAct because, unlike the competition's free offerings, this one can not only handle the test case, it allows you to print or e-file your return at no additional charge. Naturally, this free version doesn't come with all the bells, whistles, and assistance of a "deluxe" package, so you'll need to know a bit more about filing your taxes if you choose it instead of a more comprehensive tool.

I went through the test case twice with TaxAct, once using the online version and once using a downloaded Windows executable that I installed and ran under Wine. I couldn't detect any difference between the two. If you prefer working offline, untethered from the Internet, the downloaded version is the option for you. The free version also includes a review of the completed forms at the end, to catch any errors it can before you print and mail or file the return electronically.

TaxAct also comes in a $10 Deluxe and a $17 Ultimate edition, with state forms available for each at extra cost.


Online tax preparation is here today for Linux users, thanks primarily to the power and popularity of the Firefox browser, which seems to be well-supported across all platforms. While I'm guessing, I suppose that the vendors believe it would cost them more money to include Linux as a supported platform than they would realize in sales to Linux users.

The three products I tested are remarkably similar in how they operate, at least on the surface. Of the three products, Tango is the prettiest, but TaxAct is my favorite. Its free version is a no-frills, fully functional tool that's perfect for those who normally do their taxes manually but want the speedy refund offered by e-filing.

The fact remains, however, that all the products I tested worked just fine. Today's Linux users have more and better choices for doing their taxes while using their favorite platform than ever before. Online as a service or -- as in the downloaded Windows executable for TaxAct - run under Wine. In my experience, it all just works.

If you are going to try one of these products for your taxes this year, I recommend two things. First, make sure that the product you choose can handle the all forms you need to file. Things like farm and other income types are not universally provided for. In general, the more you spend, the greater the functionality included. I also recommend that you use the product you choose in its free mode until you're sure that it works on your Linux distribution and browser.


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