Filing taxes is one of those adult tasks that hardly anyone enjoys, and you might be particularly apprehensive to file for 2020 since it was a unique year (to say the least).
If your hours were cut, you lost a job, or started a side hustle, your tax situation might look dramatically different than it did in years past. How will all of the changes affect your tax return? An online tax software—including our best overall pick, TurboTax(available at Intuit)—could provide you with those answers.
The best DIY tax systems ask questions about you and your finances to determine what forms you need to file and what deductions or credits you qualify for.
One major change to watch out for in 2020 is whether you’re eligible for the Recovery Rebate Credit if you didn’t receive your Economic Impact Payments (a.k.a. stimulus checks). This is basically a credit against your 2020 income tax to cover for the missed payment.
Another difference? The IRS has pushed the beginning of the tax-filing season—typically the end of January—to February 12, 2021. Despite the later start, it looks like we’ll all need to file by the usual April 15 deadline. To save you some time, we dug into top online tax software systems to see what they had to offer, including how each handled the Recovery Rebate Credit.
Here is the best tax software we tested ranked, in order:
This review is an evaluation of the consumer experience using various online tax prep services. We’re here to share what we learned, but this is in no way a substitute for financial advice. Please consult a financial professional if you have questions about how to file your taxes.
Recommendations are independently chosen by Reviewed’s editors. Purchases you make through our links may earn us a commission.
TurboTax takes the top spot for having the most intuitive tax filing system that’s easy to follow, even for tax newbies. Did you file taxes somewhere else last year? No problem. TurboTax lets you upload last year’s tax information to save data entry time, whether you previously filed with TurboTax or used another service such as H&R Block, Credit Karma, or TaxAct as long as you have a PDF of your 1040.
TurboTax guarantees that it can find you a larger refund or smaller tax bill than competitors. If not, TurboTax will refund your filing fee. If you didn’t receive your stimulus check, there’s a section early on in the process that determines if you qualify for the Recovery Rebate Credit.
Cost: Like most to make this list, there’s a free version and paid versions of TurboTax. People with simple returns who use Form 1040 (and/or Form 1099-G for Unemployment Income) and claim the standard deduction can file for free.
To be clear, TurboTax offers a Free File program in partnership with the IRS, which is separate from its Free Edition. It’s available to individuals with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $39,000 or less, active military members with an AGI as high as $72,000, or individuals who qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC).
If you have a more complex filing where you earned rental income, investment income, ran a business, and/or you decide to itemize deductions, you’ll likely get prompted to upgrade to one of the paid plans. The Deluxe, Premier, and Self-Employed tiers range from $40 to $90, with additional fees for state returns (at time of publishing). In that case, TurboTax will review more than 350 credits and deductions to see if you qualify for tax breaks.
Customer support and guarantees: The TurboTax Free Edition doesn’t offer live support, but there’s a virtual chat box where you can type general questions to search for answers. Plus, you can upgrade to TurboTax Live Basic (for $50) to share your screen with tax experts.
There are even higher tiers for those looking to maximize deductions or report investments or business expenses. In addition, paying customers have access to phone support, and this could come in handy if you run into problems filing forms for your rental or investments.
Every online return is backed by TurboTax’s 100% Accurate Calculations Guarantee and 100% Accurate, Expert Approved Guarantee that will pay your IRS or state tax penalties if the software or a specialist makes an error. There’s also an Audit Support Guarantee that provides one-on-one guidance from a tax professional if you’re audited.
How did TurboTax adapt to our personas? TurboTax quickly picked up on the different forms to file for our fictional personas—more on this below. Marva Maven was able to file her W-2 and unemployment income with TurboTax’s Free Edition. Peter Pensioner was also able to report his IRA retirement distributions and Social Security income with the Free Edition.
Carla Coder, our fictitious filer with student loans, was upgraded to Deluxe to claim the student loan deduction. Since Michael DeAmbitious owns a freelance business, he and his wife were prompted to join the Self-Employed version to maximize deductions.
My name is Taylor Medine, and I’m a money nerd and finance writer with seven years of experience digging into the fine print details of finance products so you don’t have to. I read terms and conditions as a hobby, and uncovering "gotchas" gives me an adrenaline rush. As a self-employed writer, I know intimately how stressful tax time can be, so I put my money-nerd powers to the test and reviewed what the top online tax software has to offer.
We looked beyond the cost of the software to see which ones offer the best user experience for the average Jo(e) without intimate knowledge of tax laws.
Several tax preparation companies offer free product tiers for people with simple tax returns. “Simple” generally means that you’re filing W-2s or unemployment income and claiming the standard deduction. If you want to itemize your deductions or you earn income from a side hustle, rental property, or investments, you typically need to upgrade to a paid plan.
This year we tested five online tax-filing programs: TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, and Jackson Hewitt. The products were chosen for testing based on their percentage of market share and/or visibility with the public. In addition to cost, we judged software in three areas:
Product experience: How easy is the software to use when entering and/or uploading information? How easy is it to report stimulus check payments to receive the Recovery Rebate Credit?
Customer support and guarantees: How easy is it to find customer support, and how good is the support the user receives? What service guarantees are offered?
Persona adaptability: How well did the software respond to the information from each of the fictional personas? More on that next.
Our Fictional Tax Filers
To test each online tax-filing software, we developed these four fictional personas with common tax scenarios:
Carla Coder is a recent college graduate who's filing as single. She works as a project coordinator at a tech company earning $50,000 per year and is repaying $30,000 worth of student loan debt. Carla has health insurance and a retirement account.
Michael and Michelle DeAmbitous are a young married couple with one child who goes to daycare while Michael and Michelle are at work. They have a mortgage on their home. In 2020, Michael brought in about $65,000 as a freelance graphic designer, while Michelle earned $90,000 as a senior accountant.
Peter Pensioner is a single retired man who's enrolled in Medicare and receives IRA distributions and Social Security income. He's paid off his mortgage and has no dependents.
Marva Maven is a divorcee who was laid off in June when the boutique she managed went out of business because of the pandemic. She earned about $27,000 before receiving unemployment payments for the remainder of 2020 while looking for another full-time job. Taxes were not withheld from her unemployment checks.
What to Know About Filing Your Taxes Online
What documents do you need to file your taxes online?
The “bare minimum” most people need, according to Amy Northard, a CPA and owner of The Accountants For Creatives, are things like W-2s, 1098s, 1099s, and health insurance 1095 forms. You should receive these in your mailbox by late January, although Northard says two forms often don’t get mailed out: student loan interest forms and brokerage account 1099 statements. (The good news: You'll likely find these by logging into your online accounts.)
If that all looks like a jumble of numbers to you, here's a basic breakdown of these common tax forms:
W-2: Your employer uses this form to report your wages and various taxes withheld from your paycheck throughout the year, and also notes things like your retirement contributions and tips. It mails you and the IRS copies to determine whether you owe additional taxes or should receive a refund.
1095: As a health insurance holder, you’ll receive one (or more) of three forms. These detail the type and length of coverage you received under the plan.
1098: There are a handful of 1098 forms, but the most common involve interest lenders received from loan payments. Specifically, be on the lookout for these if you’ve got student loans or a mortgage. You can also expect a 1098 if you paid college tuition bills during 2020.
1099: There are more than a dozen types of 1099s. Essentially, these account for any income you earned that did not come from your employer. For example, if you worked as a freelancer or independent contractor, you may receive a 1099-NEC from clients. Anyone who received state unemployment benefits can expect a 1099-G to arrive in their mailbox. Money received from pensions, IRAs, and life insurance policies also falls under this category.
How do you file your taxes online for free?
If your adjusted gross income in 2020 is $72,000 or less, you may be eligible to file your federal taxes for free with the IRS Free File program. Several platforms are involved in the program, however, they set their own income and age limits. TurboTax, as we mentioned, caps AGI at $39,000, while TaxSlayer restricts filers above the age of 51. Keep in mind that you while multiple state filings are also free of charge, you may have to pay depending where you live.
If your AGI in 2020 is greater than $72,000, it may be possible to e-file using a tax software that has an unpaid version. However, if you’re planning on certain deductions, such as student loan interest, you may be prompted to use a paid version depending on the platform.
In a nutshell, you can file your federal tax return for free depending on what forms you need to submit. Read up on what forms TurboTax’s Free Edition supports here, and browse forms H&R Block’s Free Online version accepts here.
Here for the TL;DR?
Before we dive into more specifics, let’s roll the highlights reel. Time, as they say, is money.
First off, if you have an adjusted gross income (AGI) below $72,000, consider filing your taxes with an IRS partner that offers Free File. The Free File program lets you file both simple and complex federal tax returns with partners at no cost.
Three companies that we reviewed—TurboTax, TaxSlayer, and TaxAct—are Free File partners, but you have to sign up for this service at a separate home page and each platform sets its own income and age limits. Explore that option before you pay for a product. The IRS has a list of the Free File tax partners and the requirements on its website.
If you don’t qualify for IRS Free File and you have a straightforward return, including if you received unemployment assistance in 2020, we recommend TurboTax because it’s an uncomplicated process—you upload a PDF version of Form 1040 from last year to pre-fill basic information, and then TurboTax’s Q&A style questions quickly fill in the required forms.
The exception would be for filers with student loans who prefer a free version. In that case, turn to H&R Block. Its free version lets you deduct student loan interest, whereas TurboTax’s free tax-filing does not.
H&R Block also has a lot to offer for gig workers or side hustlers who do not have business expenses. These filers may manage with H&R Block’s Deluxe version (starting at $29.99) rather than other self-employed options that run around $80 on most platforms.
Other Tax Software We Tested
H&R Block Deluxe Tax Software
H&R Block offers in-office assistance at more than 12,000 locations worldwide as well as online tax preparation. Like TurboTax, you can upload information from last year’s return to save time, including if you used H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxAct, another company, or if you have a PDF of your 2019 return. H&R Block also asks questions in the Credits section to see if you qualify for the Recovery Rebate Credit.
Overall, the H&R Block tax preparation flow is a bit more self-guided than other software, but that’s not a knock against it—this could actually be ideal if you would rather skip around and complete tax forms at your own pace.
Cost: At the time of publishing, H&R Block Deluxe is $29.99, Premium is $49.99, and Self-Employed is $84.99.
There’s a free federal and state return option that supports W-2 income, unemployment income, and retirement income. Unlike TurboTax, you are able to deduct student loan interest payments in the free version.
Customer support and guarantees: If you’re looking for tech support, H&R Block doesn’t offer it over the phone unless you upgrade to a paid version, but there are guarantees that protect everyone (even free users) from software errors. H&R Block will reimburse you up to $10,000 to cover penalties or interest incurred because of a system miscalculation.
If you’re audited, H&R Block will advise you on what to do next at no cost, but this doesn’t include responding for you or representing you—you have to purchase Worry-Free Audit Support® for $19.99 for that.
How did H&R Block adapt to our personas? Simple returns for Carla Coder, Marva Maven, and Peter Pensioner took under 30 minutes to complete with H&R Block.
One area where the platform particularly shines is how easy it is to report freelance and gig worker income. You can use the Deluxe package for $29.99 to organize your contract or gig work income as long as you don’t have business expenses. This could be a more affordable route than investing in a full Self-Employed package at TurboTax or H&R Block if you make a few hundred dollars here and there from a side hustle each month.
The DeAmbitious family got pushed to H&R Block Self-Employed for $84.99 since Michael had business expenses to include, though adding these to the software was painless.
TaxAct gets high marks from us in the user experience category. The dashboard maintains an ongoing summary and tax refund snapshot that illustrates exactly how your refund is calculated. If you’re making the switch from TurboTax or H&R Block, you can upload a PDF of your 1040 from either company.
There’s also a log that shows how forms you complete change your refund, which makes it easy to review your work. TaxAct asks how much you received in stimulus payments during the Credit section to see if you’re eligible for the Recovery Rebate Credit.
Cost: Similar to TurboTax and H&R Block, TaxAct’s free filing version supports people with dependents, W-2s, unemployment income, and retirement income. Although, if you want to deduct child care costs, student loan interest, or mortgage interest, you have to upgrade to the Deluxe plan, $24.95 at the time of publishing.
If you sold a home in 2020 or earned investment income, you likely need the Premier plan for $34.95. Contractors and small business owners will need Self-Employed for $64.95 to report business income and expenses.
However, TaxAct is another IRS Free File partner that allows eligible taxpayers to file both simple and complex tax return scenarios for free at a separate web page. In order to qualify, you have to be 56 or younger with an AGI of $63,000 or less, eligible for the EITC, or an active duty service member with an AGI of $63,000 or less.
Customer support and guarantees: TaxAct offers free email and phone support to everyone (including free filers), and you can also ask tax-related questions in the virtual help section while filling out your return. Looking for on-demand help? Turn to TaxAct's new Xpert Help feature, which starts at $35 and connects you with a CPA for one-on-one guidance over the phone or by sharing your computer screen.
The company offers a 100% accuracy guarantee that refunds the price of the software plus the difference in your tax refund or tax liability if you get a higher refund or tax bill with another tax preparer because of a TaxAct software error. Filers are also covered up to $100,000 in auditing costs if audited because of a software error.
How did TaxAct adapt to our personas? Forms throughout the TaxAct process are easy to find. Marva Maven and Peter Pensioner could use the free file version for their tax situations.
As with TurboTax, Carla Coder wasn’t able to report her student loan interest in the free version and had to go with the $24.95 plan. However, since her AGI is below $63,000, she could go to TaxAct’s Free File site and file there without paying. As expected, the DeAmbitious family had to upgrade to the Self-Employed version to include freelance income and business expenses.
TaxSlayer asks for the basic information you would expect from a tax-filing service. Early on, you’re asked if you received your stimulus payment to determine Recovery Rebate Credit eligibility. One gripe while filing taxes for our fictitious personas: The software plan would sometimes change tiers, and there wasn’t a way to start over or change the plan back.
Cost: TaxSlayer's Simply Free version supports W-2 income and unemployment income, and similar to H&R Block, it also allows for student loan interest and education expenses.
The Classic plan—$17 at the time of publishing, plus additional fees for state filings—might offer a higher return for people with dependents who want to maximize deductions, as you get access to all deduction and tax credit forms. That said, you may be able to avoid this fee if you qualify for TaxSlayer’s Free File program.
To qualify, your AGI has to be $72,000 or less, and you have to be 51 years or younger. You can also qualify if you’re eligible for the EITC or you’re an active duty service member who has an AGI of less than $72,000.
Email and phone support is included in each service plan, free or paid. However, upgrading to TaxSlayer Premium ($37) will help you skip the line for phone and live chat support, and it gets you three years of IRS audit assistance.
The Self-Employed plan for people with 1099 income and business expenses costs $47.
Customer support and guarantees: Aside from email and phone support, TaxSlayer has tax guides you can use while completing your filing. If there’s a tax preparation error, TaxSlayer offers a 100% accuracy guarantee that reimburses you for federal or tax penalties.
How did TaxSlayer adapt to our personas? TaxSlayer is easy to follow. You can answer tax-related questions and have TaxSlayer fill out the tax forms for you, or you can choose to select the tax forms you need and fill them out on your own. Both Marva Maven and Carla Coder qualified for the Simply Free version, which lets you report student loan interest.
Peter Pensioner managed to use free versions of the previous software, though while using TaxSlayer, he was upgraded to the Classic plan because of his Social Security income. And finally, no surprise here—TaxSlayer took the DeAmbitious family to the Self-Employed version so they could maximize Schedule C deductions and report mortgage interest payments and child care costs.
Jackson Hewitt is known for offering in-person service at nearly 6,000 locations in all 50 states, and 3,000 of those locations are in Walmart stores. The company offers a “File with a Tax Pro From Home” service, which lets you upload documents online and sit back while a tax specialist handles the rest. At the time of publishing, this option starts at $69.
When it comes to Jackson Hewitt’s DIY filing product, it doesn’t have the slick interface or graphics that other tax software companies use to add color to the tax-filing process, and it’s not as user-friendly. That said, the price point could make it an attractive option for budget-conscious filers.
Cost: While there is no free option available, Jackson Hewitt’s pricing structure is unique because filing every federal and state return costs $49, regardless of the tax situation. Taxpayers who run a business, pay mortgage interest, or earn rental income can all file taxes online with Jackson Hewitt for $49.
Customer support and guarantees: Jackson Hewitt offers online customer care via live chat or email if you have questions. The service comes with a 100% Accuracy Guarantee that covers interest and penalty charges if a mistake is made on your filing. Also, if you try another software and get a higher refund (or lower tax bill), Jackson Hewitt will refund your federal tax prep fee.
How did Jackson Hewitt adapt to our personas? Jackson Hewitt wasn’t the easiest platform to navigate for the fictitious personas. For instance, it wasn’t immediately clear where to input stimulus payments to determine eligibility for the Recovery Rebate Credit. While entering information for our fictitious filers, it sometimes glitched by adding forms without explanation, making it difficult to check the return for accuracy.
All of our fictitious taxpayers could file under Jackson Hewitt’s $49 plan, which led to tax prep savings for the DeAmbitious family. Their business typically pushed them to more expensive tax preparation package tiers with other companies. However, paying a bit more for another service could be worth the cost if it means you’ll have a better user experience.
Doing taxes yourself could save you money, but there are instances where it might be better to call in a tax preparer or CPA. Here are situations where you might benefit from expert help:
You’re looking for strategic tax planning to help you prepare for retirement.
You started a business or sold a business.
You bought a home or got a cash windfall.
The cost of tax preparation services can vary depending on where you live. On average, tax preparers charge $188 to file a tax return without itemization and $294 with itemization, according to the National Association of Accountants. This is potentially three times what you might pay for a DIY tax software. However, this could be well worth the cost if you’re unsure about your return and want confidence that someone experienced is taking care of it for you.
What to Do When You Switch Tax Software
One of the conveniences of using the same tax software year after year is having everything in one place. If you choose another product, you’re going to want to keep your documents somewhere safe and accessible—though this advice certainly applies to any of us filing taxes. The IRS recommends keeping most forms for at least three years. And you could need to produce your most recent W-2 when renewing your driver's license, or applying for a mortgage or marriage license.
In this case, we think it's convenient to keep your documents digitally, partly to avoid paper clutter. Download PDFs of your federal and state return, and save the email confirming you’ve successfully submitted. Name each file with the year, and save them in secure password-protected folders on your computer, which you can do on both iOS and Windows.
Then, back up your computer files with an external, encryptable hard drive, like the Western Digital portable hard drive, or a cloud-based service like Dropbox, Apple iCloud, or Google Drive. Whatever you choose, be sure it uses two-factor verification so your files are more secure.
Taylor Medine is a personal finance writer with over five years of experience writing about credit, credit cards, personal loans, and money management. She's written for Credit Karma, CompareCards, LendingTree, MagnifyMoney, Student Loan Hero, and more.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.