Taxes are confusing enough without the additional stress of finding the best tax software — so we’ve done the research to help you choose the ideal option. We aimed high, focusing on well-known and widely used tax preparation software. But that doesn’t mean every option will work for you.
For one thing, you’ll need to decide between a desktop program and online software, and not all companies offer both. Online versions are typically more convenient because there’s nothing to install and you can access your return from multiple devices. Desktop versions offer more control by allowing you to house your data locally.
You’ll also need to decide how much tax-filing horsepower you need. If your tax situation is simple — you worked for wages, got a W-2 form and you’re not a stock-trading maven — you’ll probably do fine with a basic or free version. Add kids, houses, freelance gigs, rental properties, tons of deductions and other curveballs, and you’ll need to up the ante — and pay a little more. Knowing the capabilities you need will help you compare prices.
We made a tool so you can do just that.
And here’s what we think you need to know about the best tax software:
Pros: The free software files all three versions of the 1040 — a rarity in the marketplace. And you might find solace in the fact that if you utterly and completely screw up your return, you can plead for help at one of the company’s brick-and-mortar offices — that costs extra, though. If you still run into trouble, the company’s audit support is some of the best on the market, and it’s free.
For nervous nellies, worried about mistakes or overpaying, H&R Block also offers a “Best of Both” program that combines the premium product with a personal review from an H&R Block tax professional who will e-file your return for you.
Cons: H&R Block’s software isn’t the most expensive on the market, but it’s up there. Expect to pay $40 to $75 for the software — the price depends on the version you buy — plus $30-$40 to file your state return. You might also have to pay about $20 to e-file if you buy the desktop version. Learn more about e-filing here.
Pros: TaxAct is much less expensive than most of the competition. The basic version, for example, costs about half as much as comparable products from TurboTax, H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt. The price of state return prep is also lower.
TaxAct’s paid packages include free identity recovery help from InfoArmor, which might come in handy if you discover someone has already filed a tax return using your information. The service gives customers a case manager to help them address the theft.
Cons: There’s no free audit help. TaxAct sells coverage through a company called Tax Audit Defense. It costs $39.99 if you buy before you file your tax return.
Pros: TurboTax is the industry giant, powered by Intuit. It has one of the most robust sets of products out there, as well as a huge knowledge base for users. You can get free, real-time help via the SmartLook mobile app, as well as by phone and email.
Cons: TurboTax is expensive. You can easily spend well over $100 on the software, state return preparation and e-filing fees. If you’re audited, the company offers free guidance, but if you want actual representation before the IRS, you’ll need to pay.
Pros: TaxSlayer is one of the more reasonably priced offerings for both federal and state returns. If you buy the premium version, you’ll receive free audit assistance for three years from the date of purchase.
Cons: The company maintains an online knowledge base, but if you have a tax question that requires a human brain, and you didn’t buy the premium version, you’ll need to pay for help. There’s also no desktop version of the software, which means your return will be in the cloud. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but you might want to have the choice.
The free version supports only the 1040EZ, while most other vendors’ free versions also support the 1040A. And the audit assistance is only for premium users and doesn’t apply to state returns; the company also won’t represent you before the IRS.
Pros: Similar to H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt has a large chain of brick-and-mortar stores where you can go if you get stuck.
Cons: If you don’t want to leave the house, your support options are limited to the online knowledge base, email and live chat. Premium users also get phone support. The products aren’t as robust as some of the competition’s — there’s no desktop version of the software, for instance — and the free version is available only to people with an adjusted gross income of $64,000 or less. Click here to read more about the IRS’ Free File program.
Additional features and support
All of these programs offer refunds via paper check or direct deposit, and all but TaxSlayer also offer prepaid cards, such as Visa-branded card. TaxAct offers U.S. savings bonds. TurboTax and H&R Block offer retailer gift cards; check their sites for their terms and offers; sometimes you can get a bonus percentage for free.
If you think you’ll need tech support or want to ask tax questions, there are lots of options available:
- TurboTax: Users can receive live advice by phone; fees might apply and the experience level and availability of live help varies. You can also get free, real-time help via the SmartLook mobile app or scour the large online community.
- H&R Block: Offers free, unlimited advice from tax experts and free tech support via real-time chat or phone. You’ll get a personal review if you choose the Best of Both package.
- TaxAct: Provides unlimited phone support and identity recovery help from InfoArmor for basic, plus and premium users. Free email tax and tech support is available for all users.
- TaxSlayer: Comes with free email and live phone tech support and an online knowledge base. “Ask a Tax Professional” email, chat or phone support is free with the premium version. Users of the free version can upgrade for $34.99, classic users for $22.
- Jackson Hewitt: Premium users get free phone support. Everyone else gets free email support and free live chat from Monday to Friday, between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. EDT. There’s also an online knowledge base.
What if I’m audited?
Things get real when the IRS comes calling, so if you think you’re at risk of an audit, understand what your software provides. In general, there are two levels of service: guidance (which basically means helping you understand what’s happening) and representation (which means someone from the company will speak with the IRS on your behalf). Most preparers offer free guidance, but you’ll likely have to pay for representation. Here’s a brief summary of what each package offers:
- TurboTax: Gives customers free audit guidance from a trained tax professional. MAX Audit Defense is available for purchase before filing.
- H&R Block: Offers free, in-person audit support. An enrolled agent will also go with you to the audit and represent you in front of the IRS if you agree to give power of attorney.
- TaxAct: Users can purchase Tax Audit Defense for $39.99 before filing your return and $99.99 after.
- TaxSlayer: Premium users get free Audit Assistance for federal returns for three years, but it excludes state returns and some forms. The company won’t represent you before the IRS, and assistance isn’t available for other versions.
- Jackson Hewitt: Audit Assistance provides a tax pro to answer questions about how your tax return was prepared, but it’s in-store only.
Unsure about whether to hire a human tax pro or just use software? Click here and we’ll help you determine the best way to do your taxes.
Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.