No one likes preparing their tax returns. But when you have to — and the government will be quite insistent that you have to by the looming April 15 deadline — you'll want a program that lets you accurately complete your return using an easy-to follow process. And for those times when you do run into questions about your return, you'll want expert help on hand to provide reliable answers.
After testing several leading tax preparation programs for the 2018 tax year — those are the returns that are due on April 15 of this year — we recommend H&R Block's online tax product. The program features an intuitive interface that walks you through the filing process, especially helpful if you're filing at the last minute. H&R Block also makes it clear when the complexity of your return requires you to upgrade to a different tier of service. H&R Block's prices also compare favorably to its chief rival, TurboTax, which it topped in our face-off of the top-ranking tax preparation programs.
If you want the security of a tax professional who can field your questions and review your final return, TurboTax stands out for its Live version, provided you're willing to pay up for the extra help. Users who don't need the extra hand-holding, though, should take a look at TaxAct as an attractive alternative — its assorted products will cost you less than the comparable versions at H&R Block and TurboTax. Plus, TaxAct has some options that the others don't, and it's worth checking them out if you have specific needs (such as Estates and Trusts). You can also opt for Credit Karma Tax's free service if you're committed to not paying a dime to prepare and file your taxes, though you can expect some trade-offs.
Here's how we rank the tax preparation software we've tested, along with pros and cons for each service.
The best tax software overall
H&R Block provided us with the best experience of preparing our tax return, thanks to its thoughtful design and easy-to-access advice. Its services are also reasonably priced, and the company makes it clear when you need to upgrade from one tier of service to the next.
We can't say enough about the H&R Block interface, which guides you through the process of filing a return without letting you get too far ahead of yourself (and potentially missing an important field where you need to enter data). The software uses bold, clear fonts and language that clearly explains various aspects of the tax code without becoming too conversational.
When you need help with the program, an available pane on the right-hand side of your screen offers contextually relevant information and advice, saving you from fumbling through menus to get answers for your questions. If you need more than just help with the program, H&R Block offers an Ask a Tax Pro feature for an additional fee. This help comes available via chat and you can share your screen with the tax professional, but you don't have access to video chatting like you do with TurboTax's live help feature.
Importing your W-2 data is a snap — you can even take a picture of the form and upload it into H&R Block's program — and the software is very helpful in prompting you to enter information about income, credits and deductions. We also like that H&R Block's free tier handles child and dependent care expenses — something you won't find in other programs.
Whether your tax return is fairly simple or more complex, H&R Block's service will meet your needs and walk you through the process with a minimum of fuss.
Read our full H&R Block review.
Great for live help
TurboTax makes the case for using its tax preparation software by offering help — and lots of it. Specifically, for this tax year, TurboTax adds the ability to chat with certified public accountants, tax lawyers and enrolled agents over video chat if you have questions about your taxes. For that extra peace of mind, a tax pro can also review your return before you file.
The live help comes at a cost. TurboTax Deluxe costs $60 if you use the regular program and its onboard help menus and advice; add the live help feature and that cost doubles to $120. Help isn't always as instantaneous as you might like: We had to wait an hour to talk to a tax pro when we tested the service back in February — long before the last-minute crush to complete returns before the April 15 filing deadline. Still, if you fret over the accuracy of your return, TurboTax's live assistance can prove both helpful and reassuring.
TurboTax's program is easy to navigate, and filling out the return is pleasant enough, especially if you use other Intuit products and can easily import data from those programs. We found some of TurboTax's interview questions to be a bit repetitive, however; and some screens have a lot of unused white space. H&R Block offers a better overall experience, but TurboTax's extensive help options make this product a contender.
Read our full TurboTax review.
A lower-priced alternative
If you're looking to save a little money on your return, TaxAct charges a little less than rival services while offering a product that's nearly as easy to navigate. The big trade-off you'll have to make is giving up the more extensive help options H&R Block and TurboTax offer.
TaxAct does provide online support on tax terms and guidance for filing your return through searchable resources, and phone support can offer general explanations about the product and filling out your return. But you can't share your screen during help sessions like you can with other services. And TaxAct doesn't give you the option of letting a tax professional look at your return before you file — something H&R Block and TurboTax will do for an additional fee.
That extra level of protection may be worth giving up, though, if you're confident about your ability to file a tax return. TaxAct has a clean interface and is designed to walk you through preparing a return. We particularly appreciated the questions the program asks that guide you to the right tier of service, and a checklist of documents we'd need to complete our return proved to be a welcome time-saver.
TaxAct's array of online products cover a wide variety of tax situations, including estates and trusts. It's definitely a solid alternative to its more well-known rivals.
Read our full TaxAct review.
Top Free Option
Every other tax program we've reviewed here offers a free federal filing option, but what's available is limited to pretty simple tax returns. Credit Karma Tax, in contrast, has a more extensive free option that covers a wider variety of tax situations. Credit Karma says that its program covers 95 percent of tax situations, so unless you've got something truly complex like an estate or trust or non-resident return, you're going to be able to turn to this free option.
You will have to accept some tradeoffs if you go with Credit Karma Tax. For starters, the program's interface isn't very refined, and that can lead to some frustrating moments as you prepare your return. While Credit Karma uses plain language to help you through the return, you won't find the degree of help you get from other programs like H&R Block and TurboTax. You certainly won't find the option for getting advice from a tax pro either.
Credit Karma Tax is ideal if you spend much of your time on mobile devices, as you can file your taxes from your phone. The responsive design is also built with mobile in mind. While tax filers who need more of a helping hand may want to look elsewhere, Credit Karma Tax is a good option if you're confident in your ability to prepare a tax return and you'd rather not pay for the privilege of doing so.
Read our full Credit Karma Tax review.
How We Test Tax Preparation Software
For each tax preparation service, we go through the process of filling out our tax return and stop just short of filing the return electronically. We rate all the tiers for each service, starting our return with Deluxe — the first step above a free, basic return — and add other forms of income to see how each service handles upgrading us to different tiers.
If live help is offered, we test that feature in addition to exploring the help options included with the program. We evaluate tax preparation programs based on their ease of use, navigability and help options.
What Tax Preparation Software Costs
Each service we tested includes a free version, which covers the most basic tax returns and typically includes a free state return. Credit Karma's tax offering is entirely free, and covers a more extensive range of tax situations than other programs. For the most part, though, if you own a home, itemize deductions, collect income from freelance or contract work, or own your own business, you'll then upgrade to other tiers. Don't worry about having to guess which tier of service you'll need — as you fill out your return, the services reviewed here will prompt you to upgrade whenever you need a form that's available in the next tier.
Prices for the most commonly used tax form — one for homeowners who itemize deductions — costs between $45 to $60, with live help adding to the cost. If you're self-employed, plan on paying $80 to $120 for your return.
State returns cost extra most of the time. (They're free with the free versions of H&R Block and TurboTax.) Expect to pay $36 to $40 for a state return, though e-filing is included with the online product.
All three companies also provide downloadable versions of their tax software if you prefer not to use the online versions for whatever reason. Downloads from H&R Block and TaxAct cost a little more than the online versions; TurboTax's downloadable products cost a little less for the Deluxe and Self-Employed tiers. In all instances, the downloadable version includes filing one state return.
Now that we've rounded up the best tax software, we wanted to know how you fared this tax season. Have you paid your taxes yet? How did your refund compare from this year to the last? Give us your expert opinions, tips, and recommendations and help others keep their hard earned money.