The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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January 17, 2014

State eyes savings with online tax filing system

— ’Tis the season for finances and filing flurries of forms – the 2014 tax submission process is upon us. This year, however, the Pennsylvania filing system is getting a shakeup. Here’s what you need to know.

The state Department of Revenue has stopped mailing to residents its PA-40 tax instruction booklet, which includes the printed forms taxpayers will return or hand off to their tax preparer,  in lieu of a new online filing system. While traditional paper filing is being de-emphasized this year, the new system will end up saving the state and its taxpayers money, according to the department.

For those who qualify, the savings will be immediate – 2013 state and federal returns could be filed for free.

Beginning today, six tax-based software providers will have special offers on the new state e-filing website, PAFreeFile.com. Refund processing will not begin until the end of the month.

“By answering a handful of really simple questions, our interactive tool will help figure out what free software offers (taxpayers) likely qualify for,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell.

Brassell said one overarching criterion is filers must have a federal adjusted gross income of $58,000 or less. There also are age brackets for eligibility. Additional opportunities for military personnel and those who qualify for Earned Income Credits, or EIC, also are available through the new system.

If qualified, filers can get free access to e-filing software like TurboTax, TaxSlayer and TaxAct to file their state and federal returns.

Those who don’t qualify will have to wait until the forms become available on the site on Jan. 31.

PA Free File replaces the two former state-only filing options, which have been in place for years: TeleFile, which has been discontinued, and PA DirectFile, which will still be available on Feb. 3 for this year’s returns but will be phased out next year.

According to a press release, the department estimates it will save just under $700,000 yearly with the new do-it-yourself process, as the PA-40 and TeleFile booklets are no longer mailed and contract costs to maintain the two state-only systems are eliminated.

“It’s a more efficient, more seamless process to do the filing,” Brassell said. “Both of those (previous state filing systems) carried some significant cost in printing and mailing.”

For some, however, the digital shift may be less than ideal.

Andy Rygel of Dunlo said he’s become accustomed to the traditional manual filing. The retired banker said he files his own taxes and was counting on the PA-40 booklet to arrive in his mailbox sometime between Christmas and January, as it does every year.

When it didn’t, he said he stopped by the department’s downtown Johnstown office, only to learn about the system switch. He said he was surprised there wasn’t more advance notice about the online-only 2014 booklets.

The 2012 PA-40 booklets, which were mailed at the start of the 2013 filing season, did contain a message on the cover page stating that they would no longer be printed and mailed to taxpayers, unless specifically requested. That was the only other notice, prior to Thursday’s announcement from the department.

“I hate looking at 100-some pages (online). ... It’s just an eyestrain on me,” Rygel said. “I like to get a hard copy and read through it.

“I realize I’m a dinosaur, and I know it. I realize there’s a lot of young kids (filing online). There’s probably a hell of a lot of people older than myself who count on getting the instruction packets and filling them out.”

Brassell said that those who still need the printed forms – or don’t have a home Internet connection and can’t take advantage of free access at their local library – can request the forms through the department’s automated service, which can be reached by phone at 800-362-2050 or via email at ra-forms@pa.gov. Instructions can also be found online at revenue.state.pa.us starting Jan. 31.

Brassell said the Internal Revenue Service also offers free tax preparation for low-income residents, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, or for senior citizens, the Tax Counseling for the Elderly program.

She also noted that although some prefer the old method, online filing does provide benefits like automatic error-free calculations within the tax forms. E-filers also can enjoy quicker refund processing and direct deposit options, according to the department press release.

“We encourage federal filers to start at PAFreeFile.com,” she said. “That’s the only way to ensure (they will receive) the free products that will file federal and state returns.”

Justin Dennis is a multimedia reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/JustinDennis.

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