I've never minded filling out forms. When I was 6 or 7, I'd write my name and address into all the tiny coupons in the back pages of my mother's Good Housekeeping magazines. More recently, I got a kick out of filling out online forms and submitting them electronically rather than mailing off stacks of paper or standing in line to renew automobile license tabs. When I read that one could submit a federal income tax return electronically, I was more than happy to try it, especially because it promised a quick refund.
I should have curbed my enthusiasm.
As always, Peter did the calculations and handed me the draft. I went to the IRS web site and followed their instructions to use "Free Fillable Forms" provided, as I understand it, by a private firm under contract to the IRS. Things started out smoothly enough, but then I found some instructions cumbersome. And confusing. And tedious, like when I had to copy all the information from our W-2 forms. But I kept at it. I printed everything out so Peter could check it for me, and then with great satisfaction I clicked a button and submitted our tax return.
And got a notice saying it was rejected.
The helpful rejection notice said, "Here is the reason." But it didn't deliver. Instead, it listed the 10 or 12 most common reasons that tax returns get rejected. They included common-sense items, like misspelling a name or mis-typing a Social Security number. They also talked about forms and schedules that I hadn't even used. I went back over everything, changed an item on the transmittal cover form, and resubmitted. Rejected again. A third try, a third rejection.
I understand that computers look for exact information in the exact format they are programmed to expect. But instead of providing a generic list of the most frequent errors, the system could just as well tell me that the problem is in line 43, or that I needed to file Schedule B, or that I omitted something from the special submission form. Instead, I printed out the entire return and mailed it to an office where a human being will look at it. I predict that person will find it acceptable.
I have a brother who is volunteering through AARP, helping seniors prepare tax returns. He's heard quite a few people - not all of them elderly or confused - complain about the online system. So I hope the folks who want to eliminate lots of government jobs don't start with the people who process returns at the IRS, because the online system is not ready for prime time.