H&R Block debuts video chat-based online tax prep

NEW YORK (AP) ? Nervous about doing your taxes on your own, but have no time to get to the local tax prep office?

H&R Block Inc. may have a solution.

The nation’s largest tax preparer launched a service to provide assisted tax preparation to customers who can’t make it into one of their 12,000 offices. Block Live, which opened for business on Thursday, uses online video chat and a few other technologies to mimic the in-office experience.

The company is targeting the service toward families with packed schedules, those who work from home or travel extensively, and members of the military. It’s even offering a $100 discount to parents with newborns, open to the first 1,000 parents to email BlockLive(at)hrblock.com and request a special coupon code.

The process feels simple to use, and anyone who has used Skype or other video chat services will find it comfortable.

It starts when customers log in to Block Live, a secure site, and enter their zip code. The program provides a list of available preparers, and customers can start right away or make an appointment for a later time. Customers may speak to the tax preparer via the microphone in their computer or via telephone during the session.

Mark Ciaramitaro, vice president of products and innovation at the Kansas City, Mo.-based company, said the intent is to replicate the in-office experience as much as possible. But the program has one advantage over that, he said, because the system makes experts from across the country available. That means individuals with special needs may search for preparers with particular types of experience.

W-2 forms, 1099s and other documents may be sent to the preparer using a camera or a smartphone, or by scanning the paperwork and uploading the images. The preparer asks the same questions that would be asked in the office as the return is being compiled.

Throughout the process, the preparer makes the forms available for the customer to review. When finished, the customer provides an electronic signature to approve the return before it’s sent to the Internal Revenue Service.

Preparation is free for customers with simple returns, 1040EZ forms, through the end of February, as it is in Block offices. After that, 1040EZ forms will be $39. More complex returns start at $99. State returns done through the system start at an additional $39.

As with Block’s do-it-yourself software and its in-office preparation, Block Live users may defer their payment by agreeing to receive their refund on a Block prepaid debit card. If that deferment isn’t needed, direct deposit to a bank account may be used.

For more details on the program, visit www.hrblock.com/live .