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Site Seer: There's a web of tax advice online

March 13, 1997
Web posted at: 11:15 p.m. EST

From CNN Interactive Writer Kristin Lemmerman

(CNN) -- Your tax return is due, and as you may already have discovered, finding the most basic tax information on the Web can be a hassle.

More than half the sites your basic search engine retrieves are sites that either offer to do your taxes for you (their reputation is left to you to divine) or sell you books that offer strategies on paying fewer taxes.

While neither of those things are necessarily bad, it would be nice if, in the first instance, you knew who the firms were; and in the second, if the information came from the horse's mouth instead. That way, if you get audited three years from now, you'll know that at least you were following the rules, and hopefully the IRS won't have to foreclose on your house to pay your back taxes. (Yes, they can do that. It's been done.)

IRS site

The most authoritative of all the tax sites is the U.S. Internal Revenue Service page. I checked out this site several months ago and found it to be attractive, well-laid out and offer many of useful features.

However, from now until the filing deadline, you probably won't see the attractive, well-laid out part. The site is trying to absorb legion amounts of traffic, so to get more people through, everybody is going straight the plain text version. Even with the re-route, you may still have trouble getting through (just keep hitting "reload").

The good news: Once you get in, you have access to the most authoritative site on the Web today with regards to U.S. tax preparation. Whether you need information to file your personal or business taxes; if you need to download a form because your local post office/library is out of the one you need; if you want to file your taxes via e-mail or you have a question you need answered, the site is set up to help you.

Yes, you read that right -- you can post a question to the IRS online, and it will be answered. According to a posting on the site, at this writing your question will be answered in less than one business day.

Keep in mind that the longer you and the rest of the country put off your taxes, the longer the delay may be. You don't have to get your forms in the mail today, but it would probably be a good idea to at least get them filled out while you can still get professional help without a two-day wait.


1040.com

If all you need is forms, and you just can't log on to the IRS site for love nor money, you might want to check out 1040.com. The site is a service of Drake Software, which also produces software for electronic tax filing.

The 1040.com site isn't just for people who need to fill out a 1040 form. You can file your taxes online here, or download almost any state and federal tax form, with instructions, for the past several years. The tax forms are in .pdf format (readable with the freeware Adobe Acrobat Reader).

A number of FAQs on common tax issues are available, covering business and personal taxes, deductible moving expenses, students and taxes. When all else fails, there's a long list of phone numbers at the IRS.

One major annoyance with 1040.com: the site is cookie-happy.

A cookie is a piece of data that sites share with your server. The cookie is used every time you go back to the site that gave it to you, to identify you. It may also keep track of your actions while you visit, and can help advertisers tell whether their advertising is reaching its audience.

I'm not a big cookie person, and I have my Internet browser set to tell me if someone tries to hand me one. I had to reject five cookies just to get onto the site, and every time I tried to go to a new page I had to reject another one. If you don't mind cookies, it won't bother you. If you do, the site's constant cookie request may well drive you crazy.


Tax Prophet

When I first visited the Tax Prophet site, I almost wrote it off (no pun intended). The graphics are new-agey, not a confidence-inspiring quality in a tax Web site. Even its name, "Tax Prophet," inclined me to think that the site's owner was a flake.

But with a closer look you see that the Tax Prophet Web site offers fairly deep and genuinely useful content, starting with a virtual resume and tear sheet of the articles Robert Sommers, "tax prophet" and lawyer-cum-columnist, has written.

Via his site you can reach the columns Sommers wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, his in-house newsletter, topical articles he wrote for the site, and a hot topics index of FAQs. He may not have updated his copyright line since he started the site in 1995, but he's certainly kept the site current on tax law, including the latest on home offices and deducting home improvements which are also medical expenses.

The site's articles get a thumbs-up because they're easy to read and to understand. The only home-page improvement the site needs is a search engine, so that you, the time-crushed consumer, can find the columns you need when you need them.

 


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Related sites:

Nest Egg Tax Center
The Internal Revenue Code
The Financially Wired Guide to Taxes
MacWorld Special Report: What are cookies?
Nolo Press Self-help tax center
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