Relatively few things in life are free and they usually come with restrictions. The same can be told about free tax software. Although helpful, its greatest limitation is the fact that your tax return has to be as simple as it takes. Before you purchase a full version, pause and study your situation because there is a chance that a free version of tax preparation software is all you need.
Below is a table comparing different features of leading tax software brands; additional comments follow:
|TurboTax||TaxACT||H&R Block||eSmartTax||Complete Tax||TaxSlayer|
|Forms supported||includes most 1040 and 1099 forms; many supporting forms available||one of the largest number; no income or age restrictions||different 1040 forms and many more||limited, simple returns such as 1040EZ||common tax forms||1040EZ only|
|Ease of Use||Very Easy – one of the easiest thanks its guidance||Very Easy||Very Easy – arguably the simplest||Very Easy – typical interview style||Easy||Very Easy|
|Accuracy||Guaranteed; checks for errors; updates latest Tax Law||Guaranteed; will pay fines if software made mistakes||Guaranteed or refund of any IRS penalties and interests||IRS certified and up to date with Tax Law||IRS Certified to be up to date with Tax Law||Checks for errors and missing information|
|Features||Many related to guidance; one-on-one advice||FAFSA, stock assistance; loan & savings calculators||audit support, tax return guidance, audit risk gauge||Educational coverage and credit support||Related to filing process and fast online filing||somewhat limited|
|Tax Advice / Help||Yes, includes many help options (see below)||Instructions, glossary, answer centeral although not elaborated||tax help from community of tax specialists||free audit support||Guidance provided||Free email support but no live phone help|
|Free import of W2 and 1099||No||No||No||Yes||Yes||No|
A few other observations…
TurboTax – One of the leaders in self-tax preparation software. Uncomplicated interview process takes you seamlessly from one section to another and if you get stuck there are plenty of help to move forward; they include: automatic guide, contacting experts via email, search for answers to common questions, or study how your live changes affect your taxes. Offers audit support that you can download and educate yourself on what to expect from the IRS in case they contact you.
TaxACT – offers one of the best user interface that lets you feel comfortable with the software very quickly. It has a handy section related to all forms used, entered, and required in your tax return preparation; it includes form description, instructions, and pdf view. The free version is compatible with iPad; also works on Windows and Macintosh.
H&R Block – In my opinion it offers the most user friendly and clean interface; it is simple to navigate between different sections of tax preparation, go back and forth, save your progress, or get help. It also has a section to post notes as you enter information or make changes. Support in case of audit is a standout feature.
eSmart Tax – uncomplicated interface showing all relevant information; save your work and come back later; track your current refund and percentage of completion; e-file and receive your refund in as little as 8 days.
Complete Tax – it does not present the best user interface but easy to navigate. Similarly to other products, the main screen is where you enter the your relevant tax information, and the right pane tells you the percentage of completion, current amount of refund, and different options in help center.
TaxSlayer – when entering W2 information, the screen resembles the actual W2 form to easily find the appropriate fields. The product has a typical tax software layout and it’s reasonably simple to operate. It doesn’t have the sleekest interface but good enough with the important sections clearly marked and labeled. You know where are you at any time and can skip back and forth between different portions of your return creating reminders and notes. The free edition has quite a few restrictions, mainly related to income amount and its sources.
Which free tax program is the best?
There are many free tax preparation products available and one could expect to get just as many answers. Pick any software and you will find reviewers that loved it as well as people who had less stellar experience with it. Every experience is unique and it depends on you what particular feature tilts the scale to the product’s advantage. Decide what’s important and just go with it.