Taxes can be complicated. And with so many changes to federal taxes over the last two years, a tax software that can handle your individual scenario is as important as ever. Luckily, major online providers are on top of updated income brackets and COVID-19 relief programs to help you navigate your 2021 returns. (They can even help you organize tax documents.)
You may qualify for free tax filing with some software options, though the level you need depends on your financial details and what each company includes with each level of support.
We’ve walked fictional personas through the online filing process of four tax software programs. In our experience, TurboTax(available at Intuit) is easy to use whether you’re new to filing taxes or you’ve done it time and time again.
Use these hypothetical scenarios to gauge the best option for your specific situation. We looked at topics like special tax credits and deductions for children dependents, self-employment income, student loans, and retirement income.
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.
TurboTax is a standout among its competitors, especially when it comes to importing information to avoid manual entry. You can upload a PDF of previous year’s taxes to avoid re-entering your personal details. You can also take photos of forms, such as your W-2, to import each line, as well as directly connect to a number of financial institutions for some details, like IRA withdrawals. Saving time makes the process less of a hassle.
Beyond that, TurboTax makes the process extremely simple and straightforward, whether it’s your first time submitting taxes on your own or you’re a seasoned pro.
Cost: TurboTax’s free version covers simple returns for federal and state taxes. It includes the 1040 form and allows for some credits, including the Child Tax Credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit. There’s a couple of changes filers may notice from 2020: The Free Edition now covers student loan interest, though it no longer supports unemployment income.
There are also multiple paid versions that allow you to access more credits, deductions, and income sources. These prices range from $59 to $119, plus $49 per state return.
Customer support and guarantees: The TurboTax Free edition features a searchable FAQ sidebar, but you’ll need to upgrade to a paid version if you want live, personal support. No matter the tier, the program comes with a 100% accurate calculation guarantee: If you owe the IRS or your state penalty or interest because of a TurboTax calculation, it’ll pay you back for the fees and accrued interest. There’s some important details in the fine print, including following “the in-product TurboTax interview guidance” and notifying the company as soon as you learn of the error.
How did TurboTax adapt to our personas? Two out of four of our fictional personas fully maximized their taxes using TurboTax’s free edition. Devon Developer was able to deduct student loan interest from his income, which is a new feature to the Free edition this year. Additionally, Ricky Retiree could quickly import his IRA distributions directly from his financial institution.
Vanessa and Shawn Dotington were prompted to upgrade to the Deluxe version to claim their child care expenses. Franny Freelancer needed to upgrade to the Self-employed version to maximize her business deductions, including advertising, legal services, and home office expenses.
I’m Lauren Ward, a finance writer with nearly a decade of experience covering personal finance, taxes, and other topics on the best ways to manage money. Plus, I’ve handled my own family’s taxes for years, using both online tax software and CPAs, depending on the level of effort I feel like giving from year to year! I’ve handled things like W-2s, self-employment income, and rental property income, giving me a solid foundation for testing multiple tax personas on the most popular tax preparation software out there.
Cost is definitely a factor in tax software, but it’s not the only thing to consider when choosing the right one. It’s equally important to have access to all of the credits, deductions, and income reporting you need to maximize that tax refund (or minimize your final bill).
We tested four online tax filing software programs for the 2021 tax year: TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, and TaxSlayer. Each performs a little bit differently and has its own pricing structure for various upgrades. We evaluated multiple features, including:
User experience: How easy is it to navigate the software? Do answers save easily and is there the capability to import information rather than having to enter it manually?
Customer support and guarantees: Is it easy to get answers to your tax questions? And how does the software guarantee its results?
Adaptability: How detailed can certain types of tax filers get before being prompted to upgrade to a paid version?
We created four hypothetical tax filers to determine how well each software performs for common tax scenarios.
Devon Developer is a single, recent college graduate earning an average starting salary of $55,000 as an app developer. He has $37,000 in federal student loan debt, but his payments have been deferred since 2020. He also has some private student loan debt, which allows him to deduct interest from his taxable income. Through his employer, Devon has health insurance and a retirement plan, contributing 3% of his salary to a 401(k).
Vanessa and Shawn Dotington have two young children. Their son goes to daycare and their daughter who’s in elementary school goes to summer camp while her parents work. Vanessa is a sales manager who earns $85,000 a year while Shawn is a seasoned teacher earning $60,000. They’ve paid off their student loans but have a mortgage.
Ricky Retiree is single and fully retired. He turned 72 last year and started taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) on his traditional IRA and 401(k). He’s enrolled in Medicare and receives Social Security benefits.
Franny Freelancer is a social media manager working as an independent contractor. Her business operates as a sole proprietorship. Franny gets her health insurance through the marketplace. She is single with no children and doesn’t have a mortgage or student loans.
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 2021.
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.
Other Tax Software We Tested
H&R Block is another user-friendly experience with lots of options for importing data rather than entering it manually. Compared to TurboTax, its biggest downside is that it’s difficult to skip around. You must complete one section (such as income) before moving onto the next section (such as credits). If you tend to have all your tax documents on hand before getting started, this won’t be an issue. But if you prefer to plug in details over a couple of sessions, we’d recommend another platform.
On the plus side, its free version includes both W-2 income and unemployment, as well as state tax filing. Students can also use this version to file their taxes. It does include the Child Tax Credit, but you’ll need to upgrade to Deluxe if you want to access features like itemizing deductions, deducting HSA contributions, or claiming child care expenses.
There are other options as well: Basic covers single or married filers, including those with children. Deluxe includes extra deductions as well as investment income. Premium is required if you’ve earned income from rental property income or 1099s from self-employment and the Premium + Business version is required for business owners.
Cost: The upgraded H&R Block versions range between $29.95 and $109.99 for federal taxes. There’s an additional fee of $36.99 for filing state taxes.
Customer support and guarantees: In addition to searchable online support, you can upgrade to have a tax professional work on your tax return on your behalf, either virtually or in person. This service starts at $80 for federal taxes. Paid online versions offer live phone or chat support. H&R Block also offers an accuracy guarantee, which covers up to $10,000 of any IRS penalties and interest that resulted from a software error.
How did H&R Block adapt to our personas? Devon could complete his return, including his student loan interest deduction, with the free version. Ricky Retiree was able to import his retirement income for free just as he did with TurboTax. The Dotingtons had to upgrade to the Deluxe version to deduct their child care expenses. And similarly, Franny Freelancer needed to upgrade to report her self-employment income and deductions.
TaxAct’s free software is designed for simple filers (including those with dependents), college students, retirees, and individuals with unemployment income. However, its free tier does not include state tax returns; you’ll need to pay $39.95.
TaxAct is on par with some of the bigger names when it comes to importing data from other tax software. You can import previous years’ information from platforms like TurboTax and H&R Block to get a head start. However, TaxAct lacks the ability to connect directly with financial institutions for things such as retirement distributions. Again, this isn't a deal breaker, especially if you prefer to manually enter your information or simply don’t like the idea of a third party connecting to your financial accounts.
TaxAct has three upgrades: Deluxe (which adds more tax credit and deduction opportunities), Premier (which includes home sales, investments, and rental property income), and Self Employed (which allows for business income and deductions).
Cost: TaxAct’s lower prices may catch your attention, but they’re worth a second glance. While the unpaid version is marketed as “free,” that only applies to federal returns. You’ll need to pay a $39.95 fee to file state taxes. The other three plans cost $24.95, $34.95, and $64.95, respectively. From there, you’ll pay $44.95 per state return.
Customer support and guarantees: TaxAct stands out in that all versions now include XpertAssist, although this may not be a permanent promotion. The service gives you live access to a tax expert (“a certified public accountant, an IRS credentialed enrolled agent, an attorney, or another tax specialist”) who will answer your questions. Standard times are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. from Monday to Friday. But at the end of January, TaxAct announced that XpertAssist will be available seven days a week during tax season, although it said availability may be limited.
Additionally, TaxAct has one of the larger accuracy guarantees, which covers up to $100,000 of IRS penalties and interest (H&R Block, for instance, offers up to $10,000 reimbursement). Of course, terms and conditions apply.
How did TaxAct adapt to our personas? Ricky Retiree is the only one of our fictional filers who could complete his federal tax return with the free edition of TaxAct. (Again, he’d still have to shell out to file his state return.) Devon Developer had to upgrade to Deluxe to enter his student loan interest, as did the Dotington family to enter their mortgage interest and child care expenses. Franny Freelance needed the Self Employed version to enter her business details.
You can file a basic 1040 for both federal and state taxes with TaxSlayer at no cost. And if you previously used other software, you can upload a PDF and the system will transfer the information for you. However, TaxSlayer falls short compared to the others in its limited ability to import data.
The software has a good user experience for both first-timers and more seasoned tax filers. It can guide you through all of the potential forms, or you can choose Quick File to select the form you already know you need. There’s also an easy walk-through section of COVID-relief programs.
If you need an upgrade, there are several options. The Classic version expands access to all credits and deductions. Premium adds extra support, including skip-the-line service for phone and email questions, plus live chat. The Self-Employed program includes business income and expenses.
Cost: The Classic plan costs $17.95, Premium costs $37.95, and Self-Employed will set you back $47.95. These prices only reflect the cost of filing your federal tax return. State returns add $36.95 to your total.
Customer support and guarantees: Notably, the free version includes phone and email support, but you may need to wait for a response. Live chat is available at the Premium level and above. TaxSlayer also offers a 100% accuracy guarantee and will reimburse any IRS penalty and interest that is due to software errors. The company doesn’t specify a maximum amount.
How did TaxSlayer adapt to our personas? The Simply Free edition was ideal for Devon Developer because it includes student loan interest. Ricky Retiree was also able to file using the free version, but had to manually input his retirement income. Vanessa and Shawn Dotington upgraded to Classic to claim their child tax credit and Franny Freelancer, of course, was prompted to upgrade to Self-Employed.
Walks tax newbies through forms
Unpaid tier includes phone and email support
Fewer bells and whistles
Cannot directly import details such as retirement distributions
You should strongly consider hiring a CPA or tax professional in certain situations, especially if you expect to owe taxes. Here are some scenarios in which you may want to outsource your taxes to ensure accurate filing—and piece of mind.
You sold stocks, securities, or bonds: Whenever you sell one of these assets, the IRS considers it a capital asset transaction. The tax rate is different for these types of transactions, and it can be complicated to correctly combine it with your main source of income.
You’re claiming multiple or shared dependents: Dependents can make taxes complicated (especially with the Child Tax Credit). Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated if there's a divorce. Even if you provide financial support to someone, that doesn't necessarily mean you can claim them on your taxes.
You want to itemize instead of taking the standard deduction: If you spent more money on deductible expenses than the standard deduction allows, you'll want to itemize your deductions. It sounds simple, but it can be a lot of paperwork.
You own complex investments: Cryptocurrency is now subject to the capital gains tax if you sell it within a given tax year. If you're not careful, you could pay more than necessary or under-report if you’re not careful.
You’re self-employed and want to maximize your deductions: Anyone who is self-employed (meaning business owners, freelancers, and consultants) has to pay self-employment taxes. This is hard enough as it is, and it's far too easy to pay too much if you don't know about all of the write-offs and deductions you should be taking advantage of.
You’ve sold a major asset, like a large investment or a home: Selling a major asset changes how you pay taxes that year. For instance, you may have to pay capital gains tax. A CPA can help you determine what type tax you’ll need to pay, as well as any deductions you may be able to take to help offset everything.
Lauren is a personal finance writer covering topics like taxes, investing, and real estate. Her work has appeared on Bankrate, Money Under 30, This Old House, and more. She lives with her family in Virginia and loves gardening and playing board games.
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