The best tax software of 2021: Federal & state
April 15th — tax day — is typically a day no one forgets. And while it’s a chore most of us dread, for better or worse, your taxes will be due before you know it. To make your life less chaotic, you might consider using an online tax program, which can take all your income and expense numbers, calculate your total tax and even electronically file your return for you.
But with many online tax programs available, which one should you use? To help you out, last year we tested the top four programs by completing the entire process of entering our tax information, then compared the results to that of a tax professional to see if the programs could get you the same (or better) results. This year, we revisited those same programs and explored their new features to see if our verdict remains the same.
Here’s the result of that process:
Each program offers four different filing options based on the complexity of your taxes. And although they cover many of the same forms and deductions, there are some differences, and quite a spread when it comes to price.
This chart lists out those options along with their respective prices at the “do-it-yourself” level. Some of the programs are also available to purchase via Amazon or your local office supply store at a cheaper price, though you’ll only be able to “try before you buy” at each tax program’s website.
The basics of these programs don’t change much from year to year, so if you have a very straightforward tax situation — a W-2 from a job and perhaps some interest or dividend income — all of these programs offer a free option that will likely work for you. Not many forms are included, though H&R Block provides the most forms under this no-cost filing option. On the flip side, H&R Block will also work hardest at trying to sell extra options to you throughout the process, so “free” might not end up being truly free if you decide to take them up on one or more of their pitches.
If you have relatively simple taxes but still more than what’s allowed in the free versions, all of the basic-level paid options will work just fine, so cost might be your biggest factor when selecting one of the four. Since professional accountant support typically isn’t needed when it comes to a simple tax situation, TaxSlayer should be your go-to for its low-cost option.
However, if you have more complex taxes — which could include running a small business, having numerous deductions or owning lots of real estate — you’ll want to put cost aside and use TurboTax. TurboTax is hands down the most customer-friendly option with an easy-to-use platform.
But you may find you’ll need to pay some of TurboTax’s add-on fees to ensure the most accurate results, meaning you might be better off just handing over your tax documents to an accountant to save the headache. Taxes are complicated and making sure you get everything accurate while maximizing your deductions, is just that… complicated.
Throughout the entire process, TurboTax is the easiest to use, helping you figure out which forms you need in a customer-friendly way, and offering live customer support whenever you need it.
From the moment you arrive at the TurboTax website, the company holds your hand to help you figure out the right software version to use for your specific taxes. The site asks a number of questions about common financial items — such as whether or not you have a job, pay rent, pay student loans, sold stock, have children and more — which will then automatically populate into the TurboTax version you need to get started.
Out of all four tax programs, entering my W-2 information was by far the easiest with TurboTax. With many of the other programs, I had to manually enter each line item from my W-2 form, but not with TurboTax. By just entering my employer ID and the dollar amount from box 1, the program was able to automatically import my entire W-2 and populate all the required boxes. If TurboTax doesn’t recognize your employer’s EIN, you can also take a photo of your W-2 form using the TurboTax mobile app.
I was also able to import some of my 1099-INT and 1099-DIV forms by logging into my respective financial institution websites right from the TurboTax site. This made the process seamless and ensured all information was entered correctly.
My personal taxes are on the complicated side, and TurboxTax’s search feature was a huge help. Since not every form was presented to me throughout the process, I had to do some digging to find some of the more uncommon ones. But TurboTax has a great search feature, which allows you to enter the form name, along with a jump feature that takes you immediately to that form. This was definitely unique to TurboTax, and made entering all my forms much easier.
While most of these software programs offer support, in my experience TurboTax had by far the best customer support. I did my TurboTax work late at night, and at one point I was having some difficulty figuring out where to enter my Schedule K-1 information. With just a 5-minute wait, I was able to speak to an attorney with eight years of experience. I was also able to share my screen with the support representative, who guided me to the correct form by highlighting the steps on my screen.
Best of all, TurboTax support is available during most waking hours in the US — 8 a.m. to 12 a.m. Eastern time during the week — and on most weekends leading up to the tax-filing deadline. Speaking to a product specialist (not an accountant) is included in your TurboTax fee with the three paid versions, and offered for an add-on fee on the free filing option.
TurboTax also offers the option to have a CPA review your return line-by-line, and to speak to them throughout the year with tax questions. This service is called TurboTax Live and costs an extra $50 to $80 depending on the complexity of your taxes, but it could be worth it if you’re concerned about the accuracy of what you’ve done on your own. And if you’re able to get your taxes done in the next few days and file by February 15, you won’t have to pay any fee for this review when you use the “basic” version of the program.
A new feature for 2021 is that, in addition to the paid TurboTax Live service, if you get fed up with doing your own taxes at any point during the process, you can offload the whole thing to a tax expert who will finish it for you. The cost of this service is fairly reasonable at $80 to $100, depending on which version your taxes require, but it’s on top of the TurboTax Live fee.
Despite TurboTax being the most expensive product across the board, the three paid levels are currently discounted by $20 to $30 if you purchase directly with TurboTax through the links in this story. The TurboTax Live option is also discounted by $30 at the moment as well. (These discounts are as of this writing and can change at any time.)
Although all four tax preparation programs offer free versions, H&R Block gives you access to the most forms without a charge. This means even if your taxes are a step up from simple, you still might be able to file through an online tax preparation program for free.
With H&R Block’s free filing option, you’ll still be able to file Schedules 1, 2 and 3, which are common amongst many taxpayers. This allows you to cover child and dependent care expenses, student loan interest deductions, tuition and fee statements and unemployment income. With many of the other tax programs, you might have to pay for the mid-tier service in order to access these options.
However, while many people should be able to use the free option, H&R Block does regularly try to upsell you. Compared to the other programs, it has significantly more pop-ups offering the chance to buy partner apps or additional tax services. You can ignore them, but they do become a bit annoying.
Last year, we felt that one of the downsides to H&R Block’s software was that the interface wasn’t very user-friendly. Fortunately, the program has a new look and feel, which greatly improves the experience. For instance, I found it much easier this year to use the search function to find forms I had trouble finding last year.
If filling your taxes on your own proves to be more complex than you thought, H&R Block offers two options to help ease the process. The first is unlimited live expert help, including the ability to share your screen and communicate via on-demand chat or video support. This add-on service normally costs $69.99, but is currently discounted to $39.99 as of this writing.
When we tested this feature out, we found it useful, but the wait time was somewhat longer than some of the other products. On a Sunday evening at the end of January — well before most people start thinking about taxes — I waited approximately 10 minutes before an expert was available to help me.
And if you truly want to have someone else do your taxes for you, you can file with a tax professional, similar to filing with your own accountant. The cost of this service starts at $69, but we found that H&R Block doesn’t give you the full price before you actually meet with a tax professional. However, the more complex your taxes are, the higher the fee will be.
If you decide to use one of the paid H&R Block editions, you can currently get up to a 40% discount off the regular price when you purchase directly with H&R Block through the links in this story. (This discount is as of this writing and can change at any time.)
Regardless of the complexity of your taxes, TaxSlayer offers the lowest prices across the board.
With some programs charging as much as $90 to file a complicated Federal return, TaxSlayer costs no more than $47 for your Federal return, even for the most complex tax situation (though you’ll pay an extra $32 per state as well).
Now, one might assume that a lower cost equals lower results, but that turns out not to be the case. I found it quite easy to navigate the TaxSlayer website, and entering some forms was even easier than other sites. For example, with TurboTax, figuring out where to enter my Schedule K-1 information wasn’t as simple as it should have been. But with TaxSlayer, it was an upfront option where I didn’t have to go searching for it.
Even with its no-cost option, TaxSlayer offers free phone and email support, although you’ll need to upgrade to the Premium version to speak to an actual tax professional or even use their technical support chat feature. But the cost of the Premium edition is just $37, while the same level of support with the same filing needs will cost you well over $100 with H&R Block.
While we successfully used TaxSlayer’s chat feature last year, this time around we couldn’t find it anywhere, even though we selected the pricing plan that includes a chat option. You can also call the support line, which we tested and experienced little to no hold time. But if you think you might have questions throughout the process and don’t want to call every time, this might not be the best tax filing program for you.
When it comes to a guarantee, TaxAct blows all the other programs out of the water. While all four programs are marketed as 100% accurate, TaxAct goes further by offering up to $100,000 in reimbursement if their software fails to provide accurate results.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that this guarantee covers any error made by the program itself, not errors that you might make entering the data. According to the TaxAct site (the bolding is ours), “if an error in our software causes you to receive a smaller refund or larger tax liability than you receive using the same data with another tax preparation product, we will pay you the difference in the refund or liability up to $100,000 and refund the applicable software fees you paid us.”
Aside from having the absolute best accuracy guarantee, TaxAct is fairly simple to use, its pricing is in the middle of the road across the four programs, and it offers the option to file your taxes jointly with an expert.
TaxAct also introduced a new feature this year that provides live expert advice seven days a week. The TaxAct Xpert Help option lets you speak to a CPA one-on-one for an extra $35 to $75, depending on the complexity of your taxes.
One negative change to TaxAct in 2021 is that even with the basic version, filing your state return is no longer free. Although it only costs $4.95 for one state, all three of the other programs we reviewed come with one free state tax return with the basic version of each program.
TaxAct is also known to offer discounts leading up to tax day. As of this writing, you can get a discount of $15 to $35 off the various paid versions of the program, depending on your filing needs, through the links in this story. The TaxAct Xpert Help option is also currently discounted by $10 to $35. (These discounts are as of this writing and can change at any time.)
In our original tests, we went through each of the four programs and completed a real-life tax return with a fairly high level of complexity, attempting to enter every piece of data and use all the features available. We then compared the resulting return from each program to the return prepared by a professional CPA using the same information to see if the amount owed on the federal and state levels matched.
The main criteria we evaluated included:
- Accuracy: To ensure accurate results, we matched the end result to a professionally prepared filing. We also compared the results between the four programs.
- Ease of use: We looked at many different aspects of each company’s site when determining how easy the software was to use. This included how long it took to get started and sign up for the program, navigating through the software, determining whether the process was straightforward or confusing, and the time spent to complete the filing.
- Cost: We compared all costs for all types of filing needs. We also took notice as to whether or not we were being upsold extra options throughout the process.
- Guarantees: We looked at the guarantees each program offered to ensure that they stood behind their results.
Using the test criteria described above, we calculated points for each tax software program in every subcategory. Each software’s score was made up of the sum of its marks in each subcategory. Here’s a breakdown of our point systems:
- Accuracy had a maximum of 45 points: outcome matching to professionally prepared filing (25 points), matching the other tax software results (20 points).
- Ease-of-use had a maximum of 35 points: ease of getting started (5 points), ease of navigating the software (15 points), help and support features (10 points), length of time to file (5 points).
- Cost had a maximum of 15 points: program cost at each level (10 points), upselling tactics (5 points).
- Guarantee had a maximum of 5 points: Notable guarantees and protection (5 points).
While there are some interesting new features in this year’s crop of programs, there weren’t any breakthroughs that led us to change our overall impressions from last year’s tests. And after testing each of these programs, I’ve realized that doing my complex taxes myself isn’t for me and I still prefer a professional. But for simpler returns, using a tax program is definitely a cost-effective option.
Fortunately, if you start your tax return directly at any of the four tax program websites, you don’t have to pay upfront — you only pay at the end of the process when you file. So, if you end up going through your taxes and realize that doing it yourself is not for you, there’s no money lost. Or if you start with one tax program and aren’t happy with the way it’s going, you can always try another one to see if it works better for your particular tax scenario.
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