"In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes," Benjamin Franklin once wrote.

Death comes only once in a lifetime, but dreaded tax time looms on April 15 annually.

"For most people, filling out their tax return is about as fun as having a root canal," said California State Controller Steve Westly, who also serves as chairman of the state's Franchise Tax Board (FTB). "If we can give people a chance to skip the trip to the dentist, we'd love to do that."

This year, the FTB is offering a new pilot program to certain taxpayers. For a test group of 10,000 Californians, Ready Return is expected to take the headache out of filing a tax return.

Ending the Paper Chase

"The idea is to reduce the filing burden," said FTB Spokeswoman Denise Azimi. "We get a lot of complaints that it's a drag."

With Ready Return, taxpayers won't stand in long lines to get forms or worry about which form is right for particular filing needs -- the tax form is already completed for each individual using information on file with the FTB.

"You don't have to do any calculations or collect documents on your own. Employers provide so much information to the government based on your W-2 that it seems like a value-added service," Azimi said. "Since we already have the information, why do we make you go get blank forms, read the instructions, determine what you need to do? There's a learning curve there."

With Ready Return, a user simply logs on to the FTB Web site. His or her tax return has been filled in by the FTB using information already provided by the taxpayer and his or her employer -- the FTB does the math, while taxpayers review the figures, make necessary corrections and send their returns back electronically.

"If you agree with the return, you can even send it in on paper. You don't have to e-file it," Azimi said, stressing that the responsibility to file an accurate return still rests with the taxpayer, and the same rules still apply. "We're trying to accommodate by filling out a return based on the information we have. If the taxpayer determines it's not accurate, they've got to correct it."

The FTB didn't need to create any new systems or applications to launch the Ready Return pilot -- existing information systems were tapped for the front-end processes, and the FTB simply modified its existing e-file system for the back-end processes.

"In terms of implementing the Ready Return Pilot, we followed our board's direction," Azimi said. "Since the FTB, by law, can specify the form and manner of filing, existing policy supported offering Ready Return as a filing option."

By Invitation Only

The FTB is sending out 50,000 invitations for this pilot, and from that number, the agency hopes to attain a sample group of 10,000 taxpayers to evaluate Ready Return. Based on the pilot's success, the FTB will decide whether to expand it to a wider audience.

According to the FTB's Web site, the invitations sent out in February provided taxpayers with all information needed to participate, including:

  • how to view the return online;

  • how to make changes;

  • how to get the refund deposited directly into the user's account;

  • how to e-file the return; and

  • what to do if the taxpayer doesn't want to participate.

    There's no obligation to participate in the program.

    "We're telling the taxpayer, 'Here's your information and how we think your return should look. If you agree with it, submit it, and if you don't, correct it. And if the whole concept bothers you, shred

  • Sue Owens Wright  |  Contributing Writer