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We've reviewed online software from the biggest players in the DIY tax industry. To help you find the best tax software for your situation, we scrutinized pricing; tested the user interfaces, simulating how they guide you through the process; and dug into support offerings, including what happens should you get audited.
Taxes are confusing enough without the added stress of figuring out which tax software is the best, so we did the research to help you choose the ideal option. We focused on well-known and widely used tax preparation software, and while their underlying math is the same — the tax code is the tax code — there is a crucial difference between paying for what you could use and paying for stuff you don’t need.
Easiest to use: TurboTax
If you’re going to do your taxes by yourself, your software should make the experience as easy and clear as possible. On this front, TurboTax stands out from the crowd.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ, 1040A
- Paid versions (list price): Deluxe ($59.99), Premier ($79.99), Self-Employed ($119.99) and TurboTax Live ($179.99)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $39.99 for paid versions
- See our TurboTax review.
TurboTax stands out for its design and flow, making it easy to enter all your tax information, more so than other providers we looked at. It’s pricier than most, but while confident filers may not need the bells and whistles, many people will find the experience worth a few extra dollars. The user-friendly, interview-style Q&A is like having a chat with a tax preparer who asks questions in plain English and knows where to put the answers on your return.
Paid users can get free, real-time help via SmartLook, which connects you to a tax specialist via one-way video using the TurboTax mobile app or your computer (but users of the free version have to pay extra for this), and there’s a large repository of answers and research.
It’s become increasingly clear to the industry that even DIYers want a human to talk to now and then. New this year is TurboTax Live — a high-end package that handles virtually every form the IRS can throw at you, plus you get a one-on-one review with a human CPA or Enrolled Agent before you file, as well as unlimited live tax advice from an on-screen CPA or EA. TurboTax doesn’t have a network of brick-and-mortar locations like H&R Block, where you can sit down with a professional in person if you like; for many, TurboTax Live is the next best thing.
One negative for TurboTax is that it’s expensive compared with other options. You can easily spend over $100 on software and state-return preparation, depending on the version you choose. If you’re audited, the company offers free guidance, but if you want actual representation before the IRS, you’ll need to buy an add-on product called Audit Defense that runs $44.99.
Budget picks: TaxSlayer and TaxAct
If your adjusted gross income was less than $66,000 for the 2017 tax year, you probably qualify to use the IRS’ Free File program, which gets you access to free tax-prep software. (Learn more about filing for free.)
If your income was more than that, or you want other options — but want to pay as little as possible — then these might be for you.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ
- Paid versions (list price): Classic ($17), Premium ($35) and Self-Employed ($55)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free and Self-Employed versions; $22 for other versions
- See our TaxSlayer review.
TaxSlayer is a bargain compared to much of the competition, plus its interface is as handsome as other, more expensive versions on the market. It has a mobile app that allows customers to take pictures of their W-2s instead of keying in tons of numbers, plus there’s an online knowledge base. Though phone and email tech support are free, the more valuable kind of support —tax help — is free only for Premium and Self-Employed users (Classic users can upgrade for an extra $22, but it might be cheaper to just buy the Premium version, which has it included, if that’s what you’re after).
TaxSlayer Premium and Self-Employed come with free audit assistance (users of other versions can buy it for $29.99), which helps you prepare for an audit but won’t represent you in front of the IRS. And note that freelancers or anybody else filing a Schedule C won’t qualify for audit assistance. State returns also aren’t covered. The coverage applies for three years from the date you buy the software. There is no audit defense available.
TaxAct is also less expensive than most of the competition. The Plus version, for example, is less than half the cost of TurboTax’s or H&R Block’s comparable products. TaxAct will hook you up with a CPA or Enrolled Agent over the phone or via live chat if you need help. Free tax help via phone (for paid users) is a rare find, especially for software at this price point.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ, 1040A
- Paid versions (list price): Plus ($27), Freelancer ($39) and Premium ($51)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $37 for paid versions
- See our TaxAct review.
Some competitors spent part of the year tweaking design elements and color palettes, but TaxAct has largely stuck with what worked last year — and that’s just fine. It has all the basics, such as importing last year’s returns, a W-2 import, a donation assistant and some planning tools and calculators. And because the software is online, you can log in from other devices if you’re working on your return here and there.
TaxAct redesigned its mobile app, and new this year is the ability to start and file your return on any device. All of the company’s products are available via mobile, and this year the app also has smart camera functionality so you can capture your W-2 instantly.
TaxAct’s audit assistance consists of a FAQ page on its website. But customers can buy help from a partner company. It includes three years of audit services for this year’s return, and TaxAct says it includes comprehensive response and resolution strategy, IRS and state correspondence, help with denied credits, and tax debt and tax fraud assistance. That service is included in the Premium package and runs $39 for everyone else.
For those who want more support: H&R Block
It’s inevitable that while preparing your taxes you’ll run into something or have a question. If you think this is especially likely, you’ll want the most robust support options, and we think H&R Block has an edge here.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ, 1040A and 1040 (including Schedule A for itemizers)
- Paid version (list price): Deluxe ($54.99), Premium ($74.99) and Self-Employed ($94.99)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $36.99 for paid versions
- See our H&R Block review.
First, about the software: H&R Block’s free software files all three versions of the 1040 this year (1040EZ, 1040A and regular 1040 with a Schedule A). Finding the 1040 included in the free version of software is a rarity in the marketplace. There is a rub, though: H&R Block’s paid software runs on the high end, price-wise.
Back to support. H&R Block users enjoy the ultimate security blanket — some 12,000 brick-and-mortar offices staffed with humans who can help you if you utterly and completely screw up your return. The cost of that help isn’t included with the software, but better perhaps to have it and not need it than to need it but not have it. Deluxe and Premium package users also get free online chat with a tax professional.
H&R Block is also coming after TurboTax hard this year with its Tax Pro Review offering. It’s an add-on that costs between $49.99 and $89.99 depending on which software version you buy. The people who provide tax support and review tax returns submitted for Tax Pro Review are graduates of H&R Block’s 60-hour Income Tax Course and must complete at least 18 hours of continuing education and an average of 20 hours of skills training on policies and procedures every year. The tax pros handling Tax Pro Review returns are “certified at H&R Block’s highest levels and are our most tenured and experienced tax professionals,” according to the company.
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Summary: Best tax software
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|FREE VERSION SUPPORTS|
|COST OF SOFTWARE (list price)|
|COST OF STATE RETURN (list price)|
All paid: $39.99
All paid: $36.99
Classic and Premium: $22
All paid: $37
How to choose tax software
Deciding which package 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 of software. Depending on your income, you might also qualify to file for free.
But add kids, houses, freelance gigs, rental properties, tons of credits and deductions or other curveballs, and you’ll need to up the ante — and pay a little more. Using a tax calculator first can help you identify the capabilities you’ll need when it’s time to evaluate your software options.
The best tax software excels at walking users through even the most complex situations, but if you’re still not confident or worry you might miss something, consider using a professional tax preparer instead.
What if I’m audited?
It’s unlikely — the IRS audits less than 1% of the tax returns it receives. Still, if you think you’re at risk of an audit and want to purchase protection, you should 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 a skilled human 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 provider offers:
- H&R Block: Offers a sort of combo product called Worry-Free Audit Support. This gets you one-on-one contact with a tax professional to help guide you through an audit. It costs $19.99 and includes IRS correspondence management, audit preparation and in-person audit representation.
- TaxAct: Audit support consists of a FAQ page on its website. But customers can buy “audit and inquiry assistance services” from a partner company. That service is included in the Premium package and runs $39 for everyone else.
- TaxSlayer: Premium and Self-Employed software packages come with free audit assistance (users of other versions can buy it for $29.99), which helps you prepare for an audit but won’t represent you in front of the IRS. There is no audit defense available.
- TurboTax: If you get an audit notice, you’ll get free guidance about what to expect and how to prepare. But if you want someone to actually represent you in front of the IRS, you’ll need to buy TurboTax’s Audit Defense product when you file. That runs $44.99.