Lessons from the cloud: How I got my TurboTax data back

I received an email today from Bob Meighan at Intuit that will come as good news for anyone who uses TurboTax Online and needs access to the data files used to create a previous year's tax return.

Currently, TurboTax Online only archives a PDF image of your tax return. Intuit will now archive your return in the native .tax data format as well. "This will be functional within the next week," said Meighan, vice president, TurboTax at Intuit.

Why it matters

Why does that matter? If you file a return and later need to amend it, you can use TurboTax software to do that -- and at no additional charge. But you have to start with your original return, and for that you need the data file. A PDF is a snapshot of the final return, but it doesn't tell you how you got there. Without the .tax file you must recreate the return, which means answering all of the questions and filling out all of the forms exactly as you did it before. That's not fun, especially if you have a return with several schedules.

Meighan was responding to my blog post on Monday today in which I described my travails trying to get access to my 2009 TurboTax data file so that I could file an amended return.

"Based on your feedback, the engineers have added the capability," Meighan said.

Cool.

"Just kidding. My previous begging and that of others finally prevailed. This functionality was on the list this year," he added.

How to get your data back

While I was delighted to see this feature added, it comes too late for me because the new archive will only contain data files for tax year 2010 and newer. But I was still able to get the data file from 2009. If you used TurboTax, if you filed electronically -- and if you speak to the right tech support people -- they can retrieve the data file for you.

Getting my return involved sending an email with the statement "I Robert Mitchell authorize Intuit to release my tax return to me," along with my full name, social security number and a copy of my driver's license. I was also asked to cite data from two lines on my return, as a way to verify who I am. You can do the same, but you may have to be persistent: Before I spoke with Bob, the three people I communicated with in technical support had no idea this was available. If all else fails, Meighan says, send a note to Tax Advocate and he will make sure it gets addressed.

How to download your return in .tax format

If Intuit is going to keep archival returns for customers, it should keep data files as well as PDF images of prior year tax returns online. It's done so, and that's great. But it should also make darned sure the program guides users through downloading a local copy of both the PDF and .tax versions of the file. Right now it prompts you to download a PDF, which is great for viewing and printing your return but no substitute for the data file. You can download a copy of the data file when you create your return, but it's not clear when you click on "Save return to computer" from the Home tab whether you're creating a .tax file or a PDF. In other parts of the program saving the return creates a PDF by default.

So why doesn't Intuit do it this way? "Personally I am strongly in favor of providing the data file when customers download the PDF," says Meighan. "It's just must a matter of convincing everyone else. We get so few requests for this why should we spend the engineering time to do this? It's not that we're opposed to it."

I could see how changing the service to archive data file would take some work, but prompting people to save a local copy of the data file, and making it clear how do to so shouldn't take that much work, I said. After all, the capability is already there. It's just not clearly identified.

If TurboTax is going to archive the data file in the cloud I think that's fine. But it should also prompt the user to save a local copy in both format(s) and clearly explain how to do so.

"I agree," Meighan says. "It's not a lot of work just change the interview screen. The functionality is already there. It's a matter of making it more transparent."

Understand that cloud is different

Perhaps part of the challenge is that consumers have never had to think about these things before. Before I simply purchased shrink-wrapped software that ran on PCs. Had I used a version of TurboTax for Windows I would not be having this conversation because I would have direct physical control of the program and the data.

Today, with software as a service, the tax preparation process is faster, easier and more automated than ever. But the user cedes control over the application and data to the cloud. It's important for both the users and the vendors to fully understand the implications of that.

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