Taxes are never, ever fun — especially when you’re trying to make sense of the new tax law changes for the first time. You don’t need to dread April 15th, though. Tax prep programs have come a long way, and if you choose the best tax software, you’ll be able to knock out your return quickly and confidently – and hopefully get a sizable tax refund you can put to good use.
TurboTax tops our list (for the fifth year in a row) for several reasons, but the main one is that TurboTax is simply the easiest to use — and that makes a difference when you’re slogging through the drudgery of filing your taxes.
TurboTax also has a comprehensive set of features for more complex returns, but, best of all, it’s free for the millions of Americans who will file the new, streamlined form 1040 (say goodbye to the 1040EZ and 1040A as of tax year 2018) without any additional schedules or deductions.
The Simple Dollar’s Picks for the Best Tax Software for 2020
The best tax software doesn’t just get your taxes filed — it leaves you confident about your return rather than worried about an audit. With a focus on user experience, we put each software package through the wringer, evaluating facilitation, disbursement, accuracy tools, and deduction discovery.
We also considered how much we enjoyed using it (yes, you can enjoy using tax software), and looked for a few key features: an accuracy guarantee, audit-risk identification tools, multiple refund-disbursement options, strong customer support, an equally powerful mobile app, and the ability to import all of your forms and data.
TurboTax, H&R Block, or TaxAct: What Is the Best Tax Software?
Intuit’s TurboTax remains the industry’s most streamlined and intuitive tax software package for the 2018 tax year. Whether you’re self-employed, freelancing on the side, or filing a simplified 1040, TurboTax has all the tools you need to minimize headaches and capitalize on your return. Just remember: Its pricing schedule can be a bit more confusing and expensive than its competitors, so you might wind up paying more than you expected depending on the complexity of your tax situation.
With the ability to snap a photo of your W-2 form, have the information imported automatically, and then file directly from your smartphone, TurboTax is a clear winner for people with simple, straightforward tax returns. But even those with more complicated tax situations may find TurboTax useful.
Last year, the company introduced TurboTax Live — no, it’s not a Broadway musical about filing taxes, thank God — which allows you to live chat with a CPA from your computer while preparing your taxes. Users can share their screen and receive expert help as often as they need, a move aimed at competing with H&R Block’s 12,000 in-person locations nationwide. TurboTax Live isn’t cheap — it starts at $69.99 for simple returns. But outside of sitting in a room with a tax professional, it’s among the best customer support tools in the industry.
TurboTax also has a handy tool for the self-employed called Expense Finder. Once connected to a user’s bank account, Expense Finder helps to pinpoint every single transaction from the past year that might qualify as a deductible business expense. It can be difficult to keep track of every nickel and dime spent on things like travel and food, so this is a welcome addition to the TurboTax experience. Plus, users get a free, one-year subscription to Intuit QuickBooks.
H&R Block is one of the most trusted names in tax prep thanks to its excellent customer service. With over 12,000 locations in the United States, you’re likely not far from speaking face-to-face with a professional who can help you sift through the financial maze.
And regardless of which edition you choose, you can add on additional support if you need it. Ask a Pro ($40 to $50) allows you unlimited chat and screen sharing with a tax expert without leaving your home, while a Tax Pro Review ($50 to $90) involves a full, one-on-one review of your return and documentation with a tax expert by secure message or over the phone.
The company’s software isn’t quite as intuitive or feature-rich as TurboTax, but H&R Block’s Free Edition covers more tax situations: If you want to deduct student loan interest or childcare expenses, for example, H&R Block’s Free online version supports those forms, while TurboTax’s does not. H&R Block’s paid software is a bit more affordable for small-business owners and those with investments and rental properties, too – and their transparent upfront pricing is more straightforward than some competitors.
TaxAct is one of the most affordable options out there, particularly for filers with more complex tax returns. With paid tiers ranging from “Basic+” ($9.95) to “Premier” ($34.95) to “Self-Employed” ($49.95), taxpayers who itemize deductions — that includes homeowners, investors, freelancers, and business owners — can get access to the forms they need for a lot less than TurboTax.
The flipside to its affordability is that TaxAct doesn’t offer quite as smooth a user experience, nor as robust customer support as the likes of TurboTax Live or H&R Block’s 12,000+ office sites. But if you don’t mind forgoing the bells and whistles, TaxAct is one of the best, and most affordable, software options available.
Still sounding a little too spendy? Check out our Best Free Tax Software Guide to see if there’s a no-cost option that fits your needs.
What should the best tax software have?
- Accuracy guarantee: If you pay an IRS or state penalty or interest because of a calculation error, the company pays you back for the penalty and interest.
- Audit-risk identification: Tools that help you identify red flags that trigger audits, like failing to report all your income, or breaking rules on foreign accounts.
- Refund disbursement options: Users can choose how a refund is paid, including via check, direct deposit, prepaid debit card, savings bonds, etc.
- Strong customer support system: A comprehensive knowledge base, live chat or screen sharing, email support.
- Online and desktop versions: Filing online allows you to pick up where you left off on a different device or location, but some users, particularly business owners, may prefer having everything saved to their hard drive.
- Easy data import: Our top three picks make it easy to fill out your forms without typing all those numbers out. They all allow you to import your W-2 by snapping a photo of it, to import information from your previous tax returns, and to directly import information from larger employers or payroll services.
Which deductions should the best tax software offer?
Aside from the standard deductions — which were nearly doubled for 2018, up to $12,00 for singles and married persons filing separate returns, $18,000 for head of household filers, and $24,000 for married couples filing jointly — we only considered software that also offered:
- Charitable donations
- Itemized deductions
- Business owner deductions
- Depreciation summary
- Vehicle deduction methods
- Rental property deductions
How to Choose the Best Tax Preparation Software for You
A salaried nine-to-five employee and the owner of a small business have vastly different tax situations. Whether you’re a single parent or a recent college graduate with multiple freelance gigs, the best tax software for your situation will be completely dependent on your specific tax needs.
First-Timers: TurboTax Free Edition
If you’re new to paying taxes, we recommend starting with the free version of our top tax software choice, TurboTax. It’s reliable and intuitive, and should make your first time filing taxes a bit less painful. If you’re a typical W-2 worker, chances are your taxes will be simple enough that you don’t have to upgrade beyond the Free Edition.
Best Small Business Tax Software: H&R Block
It’s always nice to have someone watching your back, especially if you’re in charge of a small business. With H&R Block, you can take your taxes to any local office and have an expert look them over for you (online support options exist as well). The personal touch of H&R Block’s customer service makes it a no-brainer for business owners. It’s the best tax software for small business, hands down.
Best for Parents and Student Loan Borrowers: H&R Block
Another key benefit of H&R Block is that its free version supports deductions for student loan interest and childcare expenses — which TurboTax does not. If you’ve got young kids in daycare or preschool, or paid a pile of student loan interest this year, it makes sense to use H&R Block to claim those deductions without having to spring for a premium priced tax software.
Best Tax Software for Experienced Filers: TurboTax
Overall, TurboTax still remains the best tax software for the serious tax filer. The intuitive software is built to handle even the most complicated tax needs with ease. TurboTax rapidly determines everything from refunds and deductibles to accurate audit risks.
A Guide to the Different Versions of Tax Software
Each tax prep company has multiple versions of its software, including both online and desktop versions across various price points, which can get confusing. But thankfully finding the right version for you isn’t as complicated as it seems. The best tax software allows for smooth upgrading, if needed, for your current tax situation.
If you’re unsure of which version you’ll need, start out with a company’s free tax software option and work your way up from there. Your specific mix of income, deductions, credits, and other forms unique to your tax situation will dictate which tier you’ll be in, but here’s a quick rundown of the four main levels offered by the best tax software companies:
Free Edition: The best deal, this provides the resources to prepare and e-file both federal and state tax returns, and is generally fine for about 50 million Americans with the most straightforward tax returns. Federal filing is free, but state filing can sometimes incur a fee.
Basic or Standard Edition: Includes all the features found in the Federal Free Edition with the addition of access to basic deduction-identification tools and improved support such as screen sharing with a tax expert.
Deluxe or Premier Edition: Generally offers more help in identifying deductions through industry- or occupation-specific searches. May also include more robust tools for life events, donations, and audit risk.
Premium or Self-Employed Edition: Generally grants access to the full functionality of the software with deduction assistance that expands to include rental properties and other business-specific tax deductions, along with advanced calculators and additional investment resources.
Tax Software Comparison: TurboTax vs. H&R Block vs. TaxAct
While we found TurboTax to be the best tax software option overall, each of the big three providers have different strengths. The table below compares the main features you’d likely want to consider in picking the best tax software, not a breakdown of every feature these companies have to offer.
Best Tax Software: Feature Comparison
Online Tax Software Reviews: A Deeper Look at Our Top Three Picks
TurboTax: The Best Tax Preparation Software Overall
TurboTax is undeniably the most recognizable name in tax prep software, and it has the chops to back it up. Its audit and deduction tools are the best in the business, and its list of features is ever growing with the addition of TurboTax Live video support and Expense Finder for the self-employed. Here are a few more highlights:
- Free federal and state filing for straightforward (form 1040 only) returns
- Incredibly easy-to-use software
- The best mobile app in the business
- Expense Finder, which helps the self-employed identify every possible deduction
- Incredibly thorough knowledge base for self-guided help
- Strong customer support, including TurboTax Live expert video chat
- Heads-up audit detection while you file your taxes
- A wide array of disbursement options
- Trusty phone support hotline
While TurboTax is the overall best tax software in the field, it’s not without its weaknesses. As many disgruntled users will point out, the price has steadily climbed over the past few years and stands as one of the most expensive options on the market. And unlike H&R Block, TurboTax’s free edition doesn’t support some common deductions, like those for student loan interest and childcare expenses. But, the company estimates that roughly 50 million Americans with simple tax returns can file completely for free using TurboTax Free Edition.
It’s also important to note the company charges a processing fee if you opt to pay your TurboTax fee with your federal refund.
H&R Block: The Best Customer Support at an Affordable Price
With over 12,000 locations spanning the U.S., H&R Block is able to provide a personal touch that TurboTax and TaxAct can’t match. And the best part is that no matter which plan you choose — the free online edition, or the paid desktop edition — everyone gets access to a real-life tax professional. All you have to do is visit the office with the giant green block outside. Here are a few more highlights:
- Standout tools to help with more complex tax needs, including deductions
- Helpful page-by-page overviews and step-by-step workflow guidance
- Premium edition is cheaper than TurboTax’s.
- Peppered with links throughout each page to answer any questions you might have, such as “What qualifies?”
- A bookmarking system lets you tag anything you want to refer to later.
- Free Edition includes tax forms other competitors don’t, like those for deducting student loan interest and childcare expenses, plus free audit support and representation.
H&R Block Downsides
Right now, you may be asking, “With such incredible customer service, why isn’t H&R Block the best tax software?” Frankly, its bland website and slightly confusing interface can’t compete with the simplicity of TurboTax. But if you’d feel more confident having a copilot on your tax journey, or want to file for free and still deduct your child’s preschool tuition, H&R’s marginally less attractive software is easily to overlook.
TaxAct: The Best Cheap Online Tax Software
The online offerings from TaxAct are among the most affordable on the market for the standard taxpayer — its most comprehensive plan costs less than half as much as TurboTax’s top tier, and it supports the exact same forms.
A big reason for these savings comes down to its more utilitarian user experience. Even after a recent face lift, it’s not as easy to use as TurboTax, and you won’t find the same customer support that H&R Block offers. The bottom line is this: If you’re an experienced tax filer, or a straightforward W-2 employee with a simple return, TaxAct has all you need to effectively file your taxes and save some cash. Here are a few more highlights:
- Offers good value without sacrificing quality.
- Provides a pre-built spreadsheet where you enter information like reporting category, sales proceeds, gains/losses, and other relevant stock information
- Limited state e-filing
- A useful “Refund Snapshot” dashboard
- Mini-alerts identify errors and robust learning resources make sure you get all the help you need.
- With the Free Edition, you can file federal tax forms for simple and complex tax returns for different statuses and life situations.
TaxAct’s design and educational resources have both improved since last year, but it’s still no match for TurboTax’s offerings. Its low price tag comes with limited customer support and no audit defense options, and its desktop software isn’t nearly as cheap. But for simple returns or confident filers, you can’t beat the online price.
Other Tax Software to Consider
- One of the lowest-cost options on the market.
- Free tech support by phone or email, and free tax guidance for Premium ($37) users and above.
- Ultimate ($57) package includes three years of audit defense plus one-on-one help with a tax pro.
- You can choose whether to be guided or not, which is great if you’re confident in your tax abilities and want to bypass all the quizzes.
- Prior-year tax form access makes it easy to prepare your forms and alter them to save time.
- The life events guide makes sure you correctly input information about births, a new home, etc.
Why TaxSlayer Didn’t Make the Cut
- Online only — no desktop version.
- Deduction tools aren’t as strong as the top three.
- Instant support is hard to come by in the free and classic versions.
- A clean and modern interface makes this software easy to navigate.
- Owned by Liberty Tax, which has office locations available for in-person help.
- You can import prior-year forms and pre-populate information to save time.
Why eSmartTax Didn’t Make the Cut
- Filing a state return will cost you $30 to $37, even if you’re using the free version.
- Deduction discovery resources are very limited, which won’t suffice for more complicated tax situations.
- If you sold your home, you’ll need to spring for the Premium level. Selling a home is a fairly common transaction that would be a no-brainer to support at a Deluxe-tier level.
Whether you’re filing for your family, your business, or yourself, the biggest piece of advice is to be proactive. While we all lead busy lives, it’s always best to get a jump on the upcoming tax season and not let it sneak up on you.
Admittedly, there will never be a replacement for hiring a professional to take care of your taxes. But for anyone looking to save some money and take matters into their own hands, we’ve found TurboTax to be the best tax software on the market given its ease of use and intuitive design. H&R Block and TaxAct aren’t hanging too far behind, offering unsurpassed customer service and affordability, respectively. But for the majority of taxpayers, your best bet is the slick industry hallmark: TurboTax.
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