Crunch time at TurboTax: Common questions, crazy workloads

April 11, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

For TurboTax, this is the moment of truth.  The tax preparation software and SaaS vendor will processes 26 million 2013 tax returns this year, says vice president Bob Meighan, and most of that activity will occur over the next few days. This week things at TurboTax are flat-out crazy. By Sunday it will be totally insane.

TurboTax, a business unit of Intuit, has increased its customer support staff by a factor of 10 to keep up with all of the questions. But if you're one of the people who ask the four most commonly asked questions you needn't wait for one of those 5,000 help desk reps (all of whom, by the way, are based in the U.S.). Meighan has provided the answers below. But first, here's a few facts about how TurboTax gets the job done.

About 25% of all returns will be filed in the two weeks leading up to the April 15th deadline, according to the IRS. And for TurboTax, most of that volume occurs in the three days leading up to tax day, April 15th. That means the white-knuckle ride will commence in earnest on Sunday and continue right up until Tuesday at midnight. What's more, many people wait until the last minute to actually file -- and 80% of TurboTax customers use the SaaS version -- so the heaviest system load occurs within the three-hour window leading up to the midnight deadline. "The number of returns going through our system at its peak would blow your mind," Meighan says, although the exact numbers are confidential.

The bottom line is that TurboTax has to build its systems to accomodate a peak load that lasts just three hours of the year. "We have a massive amount of infrastructure in house, but we also use Amazon Web Services, which does an awesome job" he says.

On the support side, agents work six days a week, "very long days," for the 13 weeks leading up to the filing deadline. All of those people work from TurboTax's call centers in Syracuse and Rochester, NY. TurboTax doesn't allow support staff to work from home for one simple reason: "In an area like taxes you can't know it all," so the company has a buddy system. "But we do use the work from home model with our tax experts -- the CPAs, enrolled agents and lawyers that do tax specific help -- because we can't find enough of those people in one area."

So what are those most common issues that the support folks hear? They are:

1. Where's my refund? TurboTax can help users file electronically, it can confirm delivery and it tell you to expect your refund within 21 business days. Once the return is filed, however, it can't tell you what the IRS is doing with it. But that doesn't stop people from calling to ask.

"Two days after filing people want to know where their refund is," Meighan says, adding that it's understandable that customers are eager for updates. "This is the biggest payday of the year for the majority of filers. Most people live paycheck to paycheck in America and the average refund is around $3,000," he says. While TurboTax can't tell you if the check's in the mail, you can see for yourself by visiting the Where's My Refund page at IRS.gov or by using the IRS' IRS2Go mobile app for iOS and Android. "The IRS website will tell you when a check has been mailed or direct deposited, Meighan says, "but they won't tell you in advance that your check will be mailed in two days."

2. How do I figure out which education credit I should take?  Education credits cause a lot of confusion, but customers should answer the questions cafefully and trust TurboTax to make the right choice, Meighan says. What's more, how you come out of this section can make all the difference between paying and receiving a refund. For example, if you fail to indicate that you have a full-time student in college, any grants or scholarships are treated as income. "That can make a difference between paying several thousand dollars and getting a refund of several thousand dollars."

3. Who gets to claim student loan interest payments? Student loan interest is deductible, but if the child is out of college and interest was paid last year, who gets to claim it? "The confusion here comes when the parents are paying part of the interest," Meighan says. Both the parents and the graduate can claim the portion of the interest they paid last year. "TurboTax should walk you through it," Meighan says.

4. Why are you asking me about the Affordable Care Act? Does that affect my return? "We get a lot of calls about this," says Meighan. TurboTax does ask a couple questions on this topic, but only to prepare you for what's in store for 2014. "For your 2013 return the Affordable Care Act is not relevant." By including the questions TurboTax hopes to raise awareness as to whether a household may qualify for a subsidy or may need to pay a penalty if they don't get insurance. "But right now it's informational only."

As for handling all of the other questions, Meighan says TurboTax is ready. "We hang out until midnight on April 15th, until everything is out the door to the IRS." At that point everyone feels a real sense of accomplishment -- and relief. But don't expect to see any wild parties after the clock strikes midnight. "It's one toast to the end of the season and then everyone goes home and goes to sleep."