What is the best tax software? 2021 winners
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Most Americans dread filing taxes. It can be costly, confusing, or just plain tedious … but it has to be done.
The good news is that if you have a straightforward financial situation, there are simple and free tax filing options available online.
If your situation is more complex — you have side jobs, own a business, live and work in different states, or earn income from a trust, for example — you can expect to pay to file your federal income tax return, and probably your state return, too.
Taxes are incredibly nuanced and it’s naive to assume one person’s filing experience will be like another’s because they use the same tax preparer. That said, there are some companies that excel in certain niches, like helping small business owners navigate deductions or walking first-time filers through loads of tax jargon.
We reviewed 10 online tax preparers with an emphasis on their do-it-yourself online filing options. These are the ones that earned an editor’s rating of at least 3.5 out of 5. You can find out exactly what goes into these ratings at the end of this post.
*Prices shown do not include discount offers.
**Does not apply to the free version; state is included.
Below you’ll find our picks for the best tax software and more information about why they were selected.
Visit H&R Block »
The pros of H&R Block:
- Best option for a variety of tax situations
- Seamless data entry when you upload tax documents (PDF or photo of paper document)
- Interface is modern and easy to navigate
- Instructions are clear and helpful
- Company doesn’t try to upsell you while preparing a return
- Ability to save your spot and return later
- Offices in all 50 states where tax professionals can prepare your return in person or virtually
- Ability to upgrade to get on-demand help from an expert with screen sharing, chat, and video — starts at $69.99 all-in for one federal return (currently $30 off)
- Get a refund advance of up to $3,500 with no finance or interest charges
The cons of H&R Block:
- Free version does not include itemized deductions
- Free version does not offer on-demand chat or phone support
- Audit support is an additional $19.99
Visit TurboTax »
The pros of TurboTax:
- Best for itemizing deductions
- Interface is easy to navigate and provides helpful graphic explainers
- Ability to save your spot and return later
- Quick data entry when you upload tax documents
- Seamless data import from QuickBooks, Square, and Uber and Lyft
- Ability to upgrade for on-demand help and an expert review of your return before you file — starts at $50 all-in for one federal return
- Get a refund advance of up to $3,000 with no finance or interest charges
The cons of TurboTax:
- Free version does not include itemized deductions
- Free version does not include deductions for students or student-loan borrowers
- Frequent offers to upgrade
- Most expensive option on the market
- Does not support creation of K-1 partnership forms online or on Mac computer software
Visit TaxSlayer »
The pros of TaxSlayer:
- Best for self-employed filers
- Low price — comparable self-employed packages at H&R Block and TurboTax are more than 2x the cost
- All packages include phone and email support
- Self-employed package includes on-demand access to a tax professional
- Simple and clean interface
- Ability to set up reminders to pay estimated quarterly taxes throughout the year
- Filers with any type of tax situation whose AGI was under $72,000 in 2020 can use the IRS Free File program to file a federal return, and maybe a state return, with TaxSlayer at no cost (this is higher than TurboTax’s offer, which caps AGI at $39,000)
The cons of TaxSlayer:
- Free version does not include Earned Income Tax Credit or child tax credit
- Free version does not support document upload for quick data entry
- Interface isn’t as intuitive as H&R Block or TurboTax
- Document upload is advertised but doesn’t work perfectly
Visit Credit Karma »
The pros of Credit Karma:
- Best free option for people who are familiar with filing taxes
- $0 to file federal and state returns
- Audit support included
- Instructions are simple, clear, and easy to follow
- Interface is clean and easy to navigate
The cons of Credit Karma:
- Not much hand-holding for tax novices
- You cannot file a state return without filing a federal return
- You cannot file multiple state returns, part-year state returns, or nonresident state returns
- You cannot claim the Earned Income Tax Credit without dependents, or the foreign earned income exclusion or foreign tax credit
- You cannot upload tax documents for quick data entry
- Lacking in customer support
The bottom line: Credit Karma is free for everyone, no catch. It’s best for someone who either has a very simple tax situation or a complex situation and knows what they’re looking for. It won’t be a good choice for anyone who moved to a different state during the pandemic, even if temporarily, and has to file multiple state returns.
Other tax services we considered and why they didn’t make the cut
- Jackson Hewitt: This platform is incredibly simple and easy to use, and has options for hiring a tax pro to complete your return (starts at $69, plus $50 per state return). But, there’s no free version, even for simple tax situations.
- FreeTaxUSA: Despite its name, state returns cost extra at FreeTaxUSA. To get quicker responses from the customer support team and audit help, it’s an additional $6.99.
- TaxAct: This is a good middle-of-the-road option with regards to cost and functionality. TaxAct gets the job done, but doesn’t offer the moment-to-moment guidance and technical breakdowns its higher-end competitors are known for.
- eFile.com: A good budget option, but it doesn’t offer on-demand access to experts or quick customer support, and the interface is rudimentary.
- 1040.com: Easy to navigate and provides live customer support via chat, but a flat rate of $25 means even people who qualify for free federal filing elsewhere must pay.
- Liberty Tax: This platform has a starting rate of $44.95 for basic tax returns, which are free elsewhere.
At Personal Finance Insider, we strive to help smart people make the best decisions with their money. Filing taxes can seem like a frustrating task for many of us and we want to help make the process easier and more affordable.
As previously mentioned, “best” is often subjective — there’s no single tax software that will work for everyone. Not only are taxes highly personal, but there isn’t one universal user experience. That’s why we reviewed 10 of the most popular online tax preparers to identify their top strengths and weaknesses.
We realize that if you’re searching for the best tax software, you’re probably either willing to spend time filing your own return or you’re looking for a more affordable option than hiring a tax professional.
With that in mind, we weighted heavily the following factors when reviewing each platform: cost compared to competitors, user experience, value, availability of tax return import and document upload, an accuracy guarantee/liability, optional audit support, and quality of customer service. Each of these factors was rated on a five-point scale to determine an overall editor’s rating.
We also considered the breadth of tax forms included in the various packages offered by each company, with an emphasis on what’s available at no cost. Finally, we consulted other experts, like Wirecutter and NerdWallet, to make sure we weren’t missing any major features or drawbacks of any of the services.
We started with a list of online tax preparers included in the IRS Free File Alliance. About 70% of US taxpayers qualify for free tax filing, but many don’t realize they do, so we gave preference to companies with a free option that’s easy to find and doesn’t have income limitations. However, we also considered a few companies not currently on the IRS Free File list, including 1040.com and Jackson Hewitt.
Here’s a full list of the companies we reviewed:
- H&R Block
- Jackson Hewitt
- Credit Karma
- Liberty Tax
All of these tax providers offer do-it-yourself online filing services and a few, H&R Block and TurboTax included, also sell downloadable software for your computer, which you can use to fill out your tax return without an internet connection.
According to our research, H&R Block has the best online tax filing platform on the market right now. The ability to file online yourself, with the help of a tax expert, or in-person means H&R Block caters to every preference. Its user interface is modern and uncluttered.
That said, every American who qualifies to file their taxes for free should be able to do so without deception. A 2019 investigation by ProPublica found that H&R Block and Intuit, TurboTax’s parent company, were deliberately hiding their free filing services from Google and other search engines. The IRS said the companies are prohibited from doing so going forward.
Despite this, we still feel TurboTax and H&R Block offer valuable and honest products for filing your taxes. Also, as with any financial product, it’s in your own best interest to stay vigilant.
If you’re overwhelmed …
If you’re easily overwhelmed by taxes, the best tax software is going to be one that does most of the work for you; H&R Block and TurboTax are wildly popular for this reason. All you have to do is upload the relevant tax forms and answer a few questions along the way to account for deductions and credits. These two tax preparers have multiple options for filers with any and every type of income, as well as individualized help from a tax expert for an additional fee, if you need it.
If saving money is the most important …
If your main objective is to save money, check out Credit Karma, which offers completely free federal and state returns, or H&R Block’s free version, which supports more tax forms than competitors and offers an excellent user experience.
If you don’t qualify for a free version, consider the higher-tier packages from Jackson Hewitt, Tax Slayer, and TaxAct. These companies offer tax software for a fraction of the price of H&R Block and TurboTax and many still permit document uploads for easy data entry, offer on-demand expert help and customer support, and provide a reasonable level of guidance throughout the process.
If you care most about a big tax refund …
If getting a big tax refund is most important to you and you have time to spare, you may want to fill out a tax return with a few different online preparers. Each of the companies on our best tax software list allows you to begin a tax return for free and pay only when you’re ready to submit the return (you will need to set up an account, though). Before payment is required, you should be able to see your tax refund amount and cancel any filing application that doesn’t give you the biggest refund.
Dan Miller, Brynne Conroy, and Laura McCamy contributed reporting.
Tanza Loudenback, CFP®, is the personal-finance correspondent at Business Insider. She writes most frequently about saving money, planning for retirement, taxes, debt management, and strategies for building wealth. Have a money question for Tanza? Fill out this anonymous form.
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