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We’ve carefully 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.
A few things to think about when choosing tax software
First, you’ll 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 of software. Depending on your income, you might also qualify to file for free through the IRS’ Free File program.
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 tax 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. Otherwise, if you’re comfortable doing your own taxes and want to find the best software, here’s what we think.
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 ($54.99), Premier ($79.99) and Self-Employed ($114.99)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $39.99 for paid versions
- See our TurboTax review.
TurboTax just makes it easy to enter all your tax information, more so than other providers we looked at. It has some of the most robust features and makes importing data from W-2s and 1099s a snap. The Q&A experience is like having a chat with a tax preparer who asks questions in plain English and then 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 expert 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. One thing that kept TurboTax from winning in our support category is that it doesn’t have a network of brick-and-mortar locations like H&R Block, where you can sit down with a professional if you like.
A negative for TurboTax is that it can be 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 when you file; you can’t do it after the fact.
Budget picks: TaxSlayer and TaxAct
If your adjusted gross income was less than $64,000 for the 2016 tax year, you probably qualify to use the IRS’ Free File program, which gets you access to free tax-prep software.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ
- Paid versions (list price): Classic ($17) and Premium ($35)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $22 for paid versions
- See our TaxSlayer review.
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. TaxSlayer and TaxAct are more intuitive than FreeTaxUSA, and though they’re not necessarily fancy, they all cost a lot less than their bigger competitors.
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, and phone and email tech support (but not tax support) are free.
If you have a tax question that requires a human brain, you’ll probably need to buy the Premium version. It also comes with free audit assistance (users of other versions can buy it for $28.99). The audit assistance helps you prepare for an audit but won’t represent you in front of the IRS (that’s typically called audit defense). And note that freelancers or anybody else filing a Schedule C don’t qualify for audit assistance. There is no audit defense available.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ, 1040A
- Paid versions (list price): Plus ($30) and Premium ($45)
- State return prep (list price): $0 for free version; $35 for paid versions
- See our TaxAct review.
TaxAct is also less expensive than most of the competition. And put up against the big boys on the market (TurboTax, H&R Block), the Plus version costs about half as much as some comparable products.
TaxAct’s interface isn’t fancy, but it covers all the bases, and you still get handy stuff like import functions for last year’s returns and your W-2s, a donation assistant and some planning tools and calculators. Free phone and email tax support is available. There’s also a free mobile app, but it’s pretty basic and meant only for users with really simple tax situations. Like many other tax packages, TaxAct tries to explain things throughout the preparation process, though some higher-priced competitors have stronger inline help.
TaxAct’s audit support consists mostly of a FAQ page on its website. You can buy “audit and inquiry assistance services” from a partner company, but that runs $50 for Premium users and $40 for Plus and Free filers.
- Federal forms in its free version: 1040EZ, 1040A, 1040
- Paid version (list price): Deluxe ($6.99)
- State return prep (list price): $12.95 for all versions
- See our FreeTaxUSA review.
FreeTaxUSA really is free — mostly. Federal returns don’t cost anything, but filing a state return runs $12.95, which is still cheap compared to many competing packages. Upgrade to the Deluxe option for $6.99 if you want to be able to jump to the head of the support line.
FreeTaxUSA’s interface is straightforward: There are no overthought color palettes, slick animations or embedded videos, but all the major components are there and the flow is intuitive. You can upload PDFs of your last tax return from TurboTax, H&R Block or TaxAct.
However, the searchable knowledge base and email support feel thin compared to support options from other providers (though Deluxe users do receive chat and priority support). Also, FreeTaxUSA’s audit assistance is available only to Deluxe customers, and state returns aren’t covered. If your federal return is audited, company specialists will help you prepare, but they can’t represent you or correspond directly with the IRS.
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) and Premium ($79.99)
- 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 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 isn’t included with the software, but better to have it and not need it than need it but not have it. Nervous Nellies worried about mistakes or overpaying can also buy the “Best of Both” add-on feature. Starting at $40, that lets you have someone check your homework. Deluxe and Premium package users also get free online chat with a tax professional.
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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 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 (in alphabetical order) offers:
- FreeTax USA: Offers only audit support — called Audit Assist — and it’s available only to Deluxe customers. State returns aren’t covered.
- 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 called Protection Plus. That service runs $50 for Premium users and $40 for Plus and Free filers.
- TaxSlayer: Premium software comes with free audit assistance (users of other versions can buy it for $28.99), which helps you prepare for an audit but won’t represent you in front of the IRS. There is no audit defense available.
- TurboTax: Gives customers free audit guidance; audit defense, called Max Assist and Defend, is an add-on product that costs $44.99.
See what’s best for you
We built a tool, based on our research, that compares packages from all the top providers. With a little information about your tax situation and preferred features, we’ll recommend the right software.
Tina Orem is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: email@example.com.