How much better can they get? That's what we asked ourselves about the leading tax preparation software packages this year, given the depth and approachability we saw in the category last year. But indeed they've managed to improve, incrementally at least, delivering plain-English help on a broader range of topics and offering live advice for users with questions.
As in the past, these packages provide the tools you need to complete federal and state tax returns, doing all of the calculations required and nudging you to lay out all of your income and deductions. If that sounds pretty basic, it's anything but.
Software companies have bent over backwards to ensure that your path through the 1040ez is paved with a ton of help and interpretation. Specifically, they offer the option of a step-by-step interview that asks you questions and puts the answers in the right place on forms and schedules. And when you think you're done, the software does a sweep of your return and highlights answers that may be problematic. You are then ushered to planning tools that give advice on how to minimize your tax burden for next tax year.
Help abounds, and it comes in several flavors. Unfamiliar terms are hyperlinked to explanations. Context-sensitive FAQs dot most screens, and IRS instructions—with intelligible interpretations of them—are available for each topic. Additional helpful text and tips flesh out puzzling content. And all of the tax law changes that have been incorporating since last year are built in. If you're still unsure of something, the leaders also offer access to tax pros who can answer a specific question or review your entire return.
This year's crop of PC-resident packages—2nd Story Software's TaxACT, H&R Blocks's TaxCut, and Intuit's Turbo Tax—have improved in subtle ways. Navigation is better, and the depth of questioning in some topics has been increased. In many cases, the programs' "voices" have become friendlier and less jargon-laden. These and other, smaller changes make your apprehensive journey through the 1040 a little more palatable.
Each company (not to mention a host of smaller players) also offers an online-only version for users comfortable with an ASP model. But these services typically don't go live until January; hence they couldn't be tested for this story. The bottom line: The vast majority of filers will do very well with tax prep software, unless they're dealing with thorny topics like depreciation and the sale of securities, which require more acumen.
If you used either of the leaders (TaxCut or TurboTax) last year and were comfortable with it, there's no compelling reason to switch to the other this year, as they are very evenly matched. But if you are new to such packages, our favorite (and Editors' Choice) this year, by a nose, is TurboTax. While TaxCut will more than meet the needs of the vast majority of users and is the better bargain ($20 less expensive, not counting the free advice call buyers are entitled to), we slightly prefer the interview process and overall feel of TurboTax this time around.
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