If you’ve deliberately left the best tax software untouched because you can’t yet file your taxes, the excuse will soon be valid no more. That’s because the tax season will commence on Friday, February 12, meaning there’s less than a month until the service opens its filing doors.
For eager filers, loading up the best online tax software isn’t usually a chore, particularly as you know you’re saving money on paying out for a professional tax preparation service. If your tax return is likely to be straightforward, you’ve got the option of using the best free tax software too.
While others might need more persuading to get started, online tax software can help make short work of the job. The top rated tax software programs always offer excellent customer support, and in-person assistance too, if the provider has offices you can call in on. If your situation demands more than free tax software, paid-for options can provide the solutions you need, but are still affordable and might even highlight some deductions you didn’t know were available.
If you’re not sure where to start with online tax software, this guide is here to help. And as well as highlighting the very best tax software overall, we’ve also included programs that excel if your tax return is simple, you want the very best customer service, or are operating to a strict budget.
If you’ve been working from home more these last months due to COVID-19, you might want to brush up on the home office deduction rules too. And if you’re fortunate to have a tax refund heading your way, and don’t need the funds right now, perhaps look at the best online stock trading brokers to see if your money could work harder for you.
Best tax software
1. TurboTax: Best tax software overall
The main selling points of TurboTax is its relative ease of use - when compared to other tax filing software solutions - and that it partners with around 1,000 corporations, which enables employees of those corporations to file their taxes by importing their official documents.
In addition to being a portal for individual tax returns, the program also wins points for actively suggesting and recommending deductions that the user may not previously have been aware of, meaning that using TurboTax is a good way to educate oneself about the tax return process.
TurboTax has a great range of options, including the free version for simple tax returns only, meaning that users can choose the edition that most suits them. For example, the Premier option is designed for people with investments or who own rental properties.
And the functionality and robust features within the software mean that preparing a return is as stress-free as it can be. The paid-for versions are very slightly more expensive than some of their competitors, but the added features and versatility make them worth paying for.
- Read our TurboTax review
2. TaxSlayer: Best budget tax software
TaxSlayer has a long company history and its transition from bookkeeping into one of the major players in the tax return software industry has been solid move.
TaxSlayer’s prices are a huge selling point, and its comparable packages are consistently more competitively priced than many of its rivals. This makes a notable difference for any level of tax return complexity, but especially at the higher, most advanced levels. There's even a free option for people who have a simple tax situation (Basic 1040), which includes one free state return. Additional state returns will cost $32 per return.
TaxSlayer's software is straightforward and easy to use, and the variety of versions means that the vast majority of tax payers will find one to suit them.
The levels of included support are slightly lower than those offered by TurboTax and H&R Block, but users can pay extra for one-on-one expertise. Overall, customers will appreciate the value of their packages and the functionality that’s on a par with anything on the market.
- Read our TaxSlayer review
3. H&R Block: Best for support
H&R Block has a couple of major selling points. Firstly, the long company history and size of its network means that H&R Block can draw on a vast pool of expertise (it has some 60,000 tax experts available to help clients), and their products come with help options that can include one of these experts overseeing and checking the user’s tax return live online.
As well as intuitive, easy to use software, the company can offer help at any one of their 10,000 physical locations, as well as via its website. Its software is slightly cheaper than some of their main rivals, though the help modules do cost extra and the standard, built-in help is fairly limited. However, the interface works well and the amount of back up, should a user need it, will prove valuable.
- Read our H&R Block review
4. Credit Karma Tax: Good for simple returns
Credit Karma is really the only company offering a completely free tax returns service; this is only possible due to its advertising-driven business model. Free usually means that the software is limited or harder to use, but Credit Karma manages to avoid both these pitfalls.
Credit Karma uses the data it has about each user to show them specific credit-related products offered by third parties such as banks. Credit Karma makes money on matching leads to the products most likely to tempt their users, but users are clearly made aware that this is the model.
The biggest selling point by far for Credit Karma is that it is a completely free service, and that includes free auditing protection, which is a great added bonus. The filing process is relatively straightforward, though in terms of robustness, some of the paid services offer more. For instance, Credit Karma is not suitable for anybody filing two sets of state taxes, and it’s not really suitable for any especially complex tax returns, such as those filed by people with investment portfolios or property investments, though it is very suitable for the self-employed.
- Read our Credit Karma review
5. FreeTaxUSA: Best free-to-use
Given its budget status, the FreeTaxUSA software’s interface and features are somewhat stripped down, but this shouldn’t present too many challenges for experienced tax return users.
It also forgoes the in-program advertising that is part of other free tax return software solutions such as CreditKarma. This makes FreeTaxUSA an especially good value choice, though first time tax return users may want to consider brands with more online or in-program help.
FreeTaxUSA's free versions all have the same features, and though they are light on very advanced features and exclude some (relatively uncommon) tax situations, most tax filers should find their products suitable. This is particularly true for experienced users who are confident about the tax return preparation process. For customers who would like additional support, the option to upgrade only incurs a nominal further charge, and the Deluxe edition, which comes with support inbuilt, is also extremely competitively priced. Overall, it’s a no-frills, great value product.
- Read our FreeTaxUSA review
6. Jackson Hewitt: Best for advances on tax refunds
Jackson Hewitt Tax Service offers advances on tax returns to its customers, something not that common in the market. It offers a good range of tax preparation products at reasonable prices that are around the industry average. This includes a perfectly usable free edition of its software that works well for basic tax returns. Its products are backed up by some 6,000 physical offices across the United States, half of which are in Walmart.
The software is good for the price and is straightforward and user friendly, though the interface doesn’t quite hold up to the clean user experience of some rivals. The big selling point is that clients can apply for an Early Refund Advance to access up to $700, and a No Fee Refund Advance - in the form of a 0% APR loan provided by MetaBank - for up to $4,000, though this has to be arranged through one of its offices. Overall, the company offers a good value product with good functionality and usability that will appeal to most users preparing tax returns.
- Read our Jackson Hewitt Tax Service review
7. TaxAct: Best for accuracy guarantees
While its products are on a par with its main competitors in terms of functionality and ease of use, TaxAct differentiates itself by backing up its processing claims with a guarantee of accuracy. This guarantee is backed up in monetary terms, a feature that will appeal especially to users with larger tax bills or more complicated tax return scenarios. TaxAct has five solid tax preparation software products, and its prices compete well with comparable versions on the market.
The user interface is clean and unfussy, and beyond the free version, the packages include good real-time support options and helpful wizards. One of the biggest selling points though, is the accuracy guarantee that promises compensation of up to $100,000 if the software doesn’t deliver the maximum refund to users - an iron-clad offer that will appeal to those with higher incomes and more complex tax returns.
- Read our TaxAct review
When do you need to file your 2021 taxes?
Tax Day in 2021 will fall on Thursday, April 15. Employers are required to file and postmark W-2 forms by the end of January, so if you don’t receive it before then, ask your employer.
If you haven’t received your W-2 by the middle of February, you can also contact the IRS at 800-829-1040. You need to provide your Social Security number, address and other personal information. In addition, you need information about your employer and an estimate of how much you earned.
How we found the best tax software
To find the best tax software we filled out returns using a common scenario. We looked at how easy it was to fill out a return. Filing your taxes can be frustrating, no matter how complicated they are, so we looked for features that make filing your taxes as smooth as possible.
The best programs are easy to navigate, clearly showing you all the steps required. Most now also include the option to import your W-2, a time saving feature that ensures your information is accurate. Flagging potential errors is also important, as is the ability to backtrack if needed.
What else to consider when choosing tax software
Free tax filing
Most tax software programs offer a free filing option, available to those with the most basic type of tax return. If you’ve got a complex return, want to itemize your deductions or are self-employed, you’ll likely have to pay for more advanced versions with features for those specific situations.
The majority of tax programs offer the option of some form of audit protection. Often these come bundled with identity theft protection or other services. The typical audit protection means that you’ll get one-on-one guidance from a tax professional. Some audit defence packages include representation from the company, who will gather documents and work with the IRS on your behalf. While some services will charge for audit protection, others offer free audit support. This is usually a scaled-down version of the audit protection you pay for, and doesn’t provide any representation or help with preparing documents.
Remember, however, that audits are rare. Indeed, the IRS audited just 0.4% of all individual tax returns in 2019, and you’re only really likely to be audited if you’re filing a complicated return, or perhaps a Schedule C for self-employment income. Often audits occur due to a lack of good record keeping, something that audit protection can’t really help with. Audit protection, like accuracy guarantees, generally cover little more than assurance that the return was done correctly, based on information that you provided.
The most common way to get your tax refund, if you do get one, is either through direct deposit or a check in the mail. Some places may also provide prepaid cards. If you need the refund immediately due to some financial hardship, many companies, including H&R Block, Credit Karma, Liberty Tax and Jackson Hewitt, will also offer advances.
The advance isn’t quite a loan – there’s no interest or fees, only the requirement that you file through the company providing the advance. While advances might arrive by direct deposit, look out for those that are loaded onto a prepaid card, and be aware of any withdrawal fees that might be associated with those cards.
Online tax programs usually release their newest versions toward the end of the previous year. If you used tax software for last year’s returns, it’s more than likely you’ll get an email about the service’s update for the new tax filing season.
Free tax services
Are free tax filing services actually free?
Come tax time, every tax program advertises itself as free, free, free. But what’s the catch? The actual cost depends on how complicated your returns are and which service you use to file your taxes. Below, we look at which companies offer free filing and how you can qualify.
IRS: If you earned less than $72,000 in income during 2020, you may be eligible to file for free through the IRS Free File program. This is a partnership with a variety of tax filing companies that lets you complete your federal and state returns for free.
Credit Karma: Of all the tax programs we reviewed, Credit Karma is the only one with no exceptions to its free filing. No matter your tax situation, you can file your federal and state returns for free.
TurboTax: Whether you can file your taxes for free with TurboTax depends on how complex your return is. If you have a basic return with just a W-2 and the Earned Income Credit, you can file your state and federal returns for free. However, if you have a more complicated return and want to itemize deductions, you need to pay for the Deluxe Edition, and if you’re self-employed, the Self-Employed edition will cost more again.
H&R Block: The free tax software available through H&R Block allows you to claim more deductions than with some programs, including student loan interest and child care. But if you’re a homeowner, you’ll need to pay for the Deluxe Online edition, which lets you deduct mortgage interest, while freelancers will need to pay for the Premium edition to file.
TaxSlayer: Only the most basic returns are free to file. If you have dependents or a return that requires anything beyond a Form 1040, you have to pay to use TaxSlayer Classic, which lets you access all the forms and deductions. State returns cost more too.
FreeTaxUSA: Federal returns, no matter how complex, are free to file through this service, but it will cost $12.95 to file state returns. For $6.99, you can purchase a Deluxe edition that provides real-time assistance filing your taxes.
TaxAct: Like many companies, if you just file a basic Form 1040, you can do so for free. If you want to itemize deductions, you need to pay for the Deluxe edition, while the Premier edition is for complex returns, including investments. State returns cost extra too, even on the free edition.
How much does it cost to have taxes prepared professionally?
Taxes can be daunting, and the idea of having a professional do them for you is very appealing. It can be expensive though, with recent figures showing the typical fee for a tax professional to prepare a Form 1040 and state return with no itemized deductions is $188. Itemizing deductions increases this by more than $100 to $294, while if you’re self-employed, needing to file the form Schedule C will set you back a further $187 on average.
If you itemize your deductions or have a lot of business or investment income, and you want to find an accountant or tax preparer, most online tax software includes the option to have a professional review your return. If you choose to have your taxes prepared by a professional, know that they can only charge a flat fee. Avoid anyone who charges a percentage of your return. Also, tax preparers can’t charge contingency fees, except in rare circumstances.
Also bear in mind that professional tax preparers may charge more during peak season, and particularly if you try to get your returns completed at the last minute. You also must pay an additional fee if you need a return expedited or need to file an extension.
How to file if you don’t get a W-2
Generally, if you work a job, taxes are withheld from each paycheck and you receive a W-2 at the end of the year. However, if you’re a freelancer or undertake contract work, responsibility for your own taxes is squarely with you. While you should receive a form 1099-MISC that documents the income you’ve received, you’ll need to figure out the taxes yourself. Because income, Social Security and Medicare taxes aren’t taken out by the person who paid you, you have to deduct them yourself. In some cases, the IRS may expect you to make quarterly income tax payments.
Fortunately, there are also many deductions for which you may be eligible, which can potentially reduce the amount you pay. For example, you can deduct your home office, travel and other expenses, and if you work for a ride share, you can deduct your mileage, car insurance and other expenses.
One drawback of having to file taxes as a self-employed person is your returns will be more complex, which is why most online tax programs don’t support free filing for self-employed workers. As such, you’ll have to pay to use those services.
How your taxes change
Life changes that can affect your taxes
Your tax status can change a lot depending on what happened in your life the preceding year. Here’s how some common major life events can affect your taxes:
This has one of the greatest effects on your taxes. When you get married, you can choose to file jointly or separately. Most often, people file jointly because doing so gets you a larger standard deduction, and you end up paying less in taxes. You also become eligible for other tax benefits like a student loan interest deduction. It’s rare, but there are occasions where you may be better off filing separately.
Having a Child
Having a baby, adopting or otherwise claiming a dependent gives you many other opportunities for tax benefits. You can claim the child tax credit, which is worth $1,000 per qualifying child. If you adopt, there’s a separate tax credit you can claim. Also, you can claim a deduction for out-of-pocket child care costs.
Buying a Home
There are some tax deductions available to homeowners. Chief among them is the mortgage interest deduction, though it is usually only an option if you itemize your deductions. Deductions may be available for mortgage points and property tax payments.
Going Back to School
There are a variety of deductions you can claim on your education costs when you go back to school. You can deduct tuition, fees, supplies or other expenses, but you can’t claim more than one tax break for the same expenses in the same year.
What documents do you need?
What documents do I need to file my taxes?
The documents you need to complete your tax form depends on where you work, if you own a home and various other factors. Here are a few of the documents you may need as you start to file your taxes this year:
This is the most common form, and it shows the income you received from your place of employment.
This type of form supplies information about additional income. There are specific 1099 forms for cancelled debt, foreclosed homes, dividends, rental income and many other types of miscellaneous income not covered by W-2s. The most common of these forms is probably the 1099-MISC – it covers self-employed income and is the form most commonly used by freelancers and gig-economy workers.
If you own your own business, you fill out a Schedule C to report your profits or losses from the preceding year.
This form has information about expenses you might be eligible to deduct. The standard Form 1098 is for mortgage interest. A form 1098-E covers student loan interest, and a 1098-T applies to tuition costs. If you’re a student, you may get these forms and be eligible for various deductions.
This form allows you to deduct for your child care expenses and depends on your income. You need to provide information about the care provider.
How to file an extension
Taxes are always due April 15, unless that day falls on a weekend or holiday. In that case, they’re due the following Monday. If you haven’t finished your tax returns in time, you can fill out a form and request an extension from the IRS. You don’t need to provide any justification – the IRS will grant the extension regardless of why you need it. When you file an extension, you have an additional six months to complete a return. If you are out of the country on tax day, you can file for a two-month extension.
To get an extension, you usually need to fill out a Form 4868. On the form, you need to provide an estimate of your tax liability, how much you expect to pay and the balance of those two amounts. You don’t need to be 100 percent accurate, but get as close as you can. Anyone who uses Free File can request an extension through that channel, while most tax software also includes the option to ask for the six month deferment.
Importantly, while the extension gives you an additional six months to file your return, it doesn’t give you longer to pay what you owe. That’s why you need to be as accurate as possible when filing your Form 4868 and pay whatever you owe before the April 15 deadline. You will still owe any outstanding balance. In addition, you will be assessed a 0.5-percent-per-month late payment penalty and possibly have to pay additional interest. One reason to file an extension is to avoid the 5-percent-per-month late filing fee.
How do withholdings affect your taxes?
Taxes can be complicated, and withholdings add to that. A W-4 form tells your employer how much tax to deduct from your paycheck based on the number of allowances you claim. The more allowances you claim, the less money is deducted from your paycheck and the likelier you are to have to pay taxes. Claiming fewer allowances increases the likelihood of getting a refund. Claiming zero allowances means your employer will withhold the maximum amount possible.
Generally, the allowances you claim depend on your marital status, how many dependents you have and whether you can be claimed as a dependant. If someone claims you, selecting zero or one on your W-4 is ideal. Similarly, if you’re single, claim one or two. If you’re married with one dependant, claim two. For each additional dependent, you can add one more allowance. The IRS has a calculator that can help you figure out how many allowances to claim on your W-4.
Be aware that it’s possible to have too little withheld from your paycheck, in which case you might end up paying penalties and interest. If the IRS finds you claimed allowances you shouldn’t have, you may have to pay a penalty.
Should you itemize your deductions?
One question that comes up each year when it’s time to file your taxes is whether you should itemize your deductions. To work out whether itemizing is worth it or not, you need to calculate if the allowable expenses you paid during the year - on items such as home mortgage interest and property taxes, state income or sales taxes, and medical expenses - are greater than the standard deduction for your filing status.
As the standard deduction for 2020 taxes is $12,400 for individuals filing by themselves or $24,800 for married couples filing jointly, these are the amounts that you need to exceed to make it worthwhile itemizing.
Your mortgage interest is a good starting point for itemizing your deductions. Your lender will send you a Form 1098, which lists the interest you paid on your mortgage as well as the amount you paid for points to reduce your rate. If this amount exceeds your standard deduction, itemizing is a good choice, and anything else you itemize will only add to your deductions.
Other deductions you can itemize include income taxes paid to your city and state. You can also deduct medical expenses if they exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income – so if you earned $50,000, you won’t be able to deduct the first $3,500 of your medical expenses.
Next to your mortgage interest, charitable giving is one of the best ways to itemize your deductions. Most donations you make can be deducted, provided they are to a 501 (c) (3) organization. You need to have a receipt or cancelled check to document any deductions you make, so keep those on hand.
Which deductions and credits were eliminated in 2018?
Following tax code changes in 2017, withholding tables changed, which increased paychecks but reduced refunds. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act significantly changed an already complicated tax code. Some changes adjusted tax brackets and enlarged the standard deductions. Other changes removed specific tax deductions and credits. Here are some of the most popular deductions and credits that were eliminated:
Personal Exemptions: One of the biggest changes removed the personal exemption. This popular exemption allowed you to claim a deduction for yourself, your spouse and every child living in the home. In 2017, this exemption was around $4,000, so a large family could see a significant reduction in their tax bill. It was thought that the standard deduction increase would compensate for removing the personal exemption, but large families typically saw a higher tax bill.
Moving Expenses: In previous years, you could deduct moving expenses if you moved for a job or were self-employed, but that deduction was eliminated for 2018.
Home Equity Loan Interest: Since 2018, it’s no longer been possible to deduct interest on a home equity loan, unless you used the loan to buy, build, or significantly improve your home and the loan is secured by your home.
Employment Expenses: Up until 2018, you could deduct expenses that had not been reimbursed, if they related to your job and exceeded 2 percent of your gross income, but this deduction is now no longer available. If you’re employed but have been working at home more this year due to COVID-19, the home office deduction rules as they know stand are unlikely to prove beneficial.
State rules and filing in multiple states
How do state and local taxes affect your federal returns?
State and local taxes can vary significantly depending on where you live. Some states have no income taxes at all, some have a flat tax and some have tax structures that mimic the federal government with graduated structures and different tax brackets. Some cities in certain states also apply their own taxes, which also vary in structure.
You can deduct your state and local taxes from your federal returns. This includes not only income tax, but also property tax and sales tax if you don’t deduct any local taxes. This is often referred to as the SALT deduction. Like many aspects of U.S. tax codes, this was significantly changed with the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which took effect for 2018 tax returns onwards. Prior to 2018, you could deduct all of your state and local taxes, including property taxes from your federal taxes, with no limit. In states with high state income taxes and property values, like California and New York, this was a generous benefit that cut down significantly on an individual’s federal taxes.
Now, however, this deduction of state and local taxes has been capped at $10,000. So if you pay $7,000 in state taxes and $5,000 in property taxes, you can only deduct $10,000 of that $12,000 total. If you’re married but filing separately, the limit is $5,000. With the increase of the standard deduction, this is yet another deduction that is less likely to be used because fewer people may opt not to itemize.
How to file in multiple states
If you moved or worked in more than one state, your state tax returns can make tax season more complicated. This year, in particular, with home working more prevalent due to COVID-19, it could catch out more people than usual, and leave remote workers facing an unwelcome tax liability.
While this doesn’t affect your federal return, it does mean you could end up filing more than one state return. And while the process isn’t much more complex, you may need to give yourself more time to fill out your returns. Here a few scenarios that may require you to file multiple state returns:
The most common reason for filing multiple state returns is moving. If you moved to another state during the tax year, no matter the reason, you need to file part-year returns for both states. Depending on the state, you may have to file a completely separate form for a part-year return or just fill out the regular return.
Often when you move, you work at a new job with it's own W-2, and you just fill out each state’s return with the W-2 from the job you worked in that state. However, if you moved but still work for the same company, you only get one W-2 and need to allocate the income to each state based on how much time you lived there or using payroll data from your company. Most tax programs have tools to help you do this.
If you commute to work in another state, you need to file a non-resident return in the state you work in and a resident return in the state you live in. This doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be double taxed – you get a credit in the state you live in that usually counteracts the amount you pay to the state you work in, though variances in each state’s tax rate may complicate this.