No one likes preparing their tax returns. But when you have to — and the government will be quite insistent that you have to — you’ll want a program that lets you accurately complete your return using an easy-to follow process. And for those times when you do run into questions about your return, you’ll want expert help on hand to provide reliable answers.

After testing several leading tax preparation programs for the 2018 tax year — those are the returns that are due on April 15 of this year — we recommend H&R Block’s online tax product. The program features an intuitive interface that walks you through the filing process and makes it clear when the complexity of your return requires you to upgrade to a different tier of service. H&R Block’s prices also compare favorably to its chief rival, TurboTax.

If you want the security of a tax professional who can field your questions and review your final return, TurboTax stands out for its Live version, provided you’re willing to pay up for the extra help. Users who don’t need the extra hand-holding, though, should take a look at TaxAct as an attractive alternative — its assorted products will cost you less than the comparable versions at H&R Block and TurboTax. Plus, TaxAct has some options that the others don’t, and it’s worth checking them out if you have specific needs (such as Estates and Trusts).

Here’s how we rank the tax preparation software we’ve tested, along with pros and cons for each service.

1. H&R Block

The best tax software overall

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Available Products: Free ($0, includes state return); Deluxe ($49.99); Premium ($69.99); Self-employed ($104.99); Tax Pro Review ($144.99); State return ($36.99)

Pros: Easy to navigate; Easy access to help tools; Clear explanations of tax laws and terms

Cons: Help from tax pros available only via chat

H&R Block provided us with the best experience of preparing our tax return, thanks to its thoughtful design and easy-to-access advice. Its services are also reasonably priced, and the company makes it clear when you need to upgrade from one tier of service to the next.

We can’t say enough about the H&R Block interface, which guides you through the process of filing a return without letting you get too far ahead of yourself (and potentially missing an important field where you need to enter data). The software uses bold, clear fonts and language that clearly explains various aspects of the tax code without becoming too conversational.

When you need help with the program, an available pane on the right-hand side of your screen offers contextually relevant information and advice, saving you from fumbling through menus to get answers for your questions. If you need more than just help with the program, H&R Block offers an Ask a Tax Pro feature for an additional fee. This help comes available via chat and you can share your screen with the tax professional, but you don’t have access to video chatting like you do with TurboTax’s live help feature.

Importing your W-2 data is a snap — you can even take a picture of the form and upload it into H&R Block’s program — and the software is very helpful in prompting you to enter information about income, credits and deductions. We also like that H&R Block’s free tier handles child and dependent care expenses — something you won’t find in other programs.

Whether your tax return is fairly simple or more complex, H&R Block’s service will meet your needs and walk you through the process with a minimum of fuss.

Read our full H&R Block review.
  

2. TurboTax

Great for live help

Rating: 4/5 stars

Available Products: Basic ($0; Live, $79.95); Deluxe ($59.99; Live, $119.95); Premier ($79.99; Live $169.99); Self-Employed ($119.99; Live $199.99); State Return ($39.99)

Pros: Extensive live help options; Easy to navigate around return; Prices structured based on complexity of your return

Cons: Some delays talking to a live tax professional; Repetitive questions; Interface could use some refinement

TurboTax makes the case for using its tax preparation software by offering help — and lots of it. Specifically, for this tax year, TurboTax adds the ability to chat with certified public accountants, tax lawyers and enrolled agents over video chat if you have questions about your taxes. For that extra peace of mind, a tax pro can also review your return before you file.

The live help comes at a cost. TurboTax Deluxe costs $60 if you use the regular program and its onboard help menus and advice; add the live help feature and that cost doubles to $120. Help isn’t always as instantaneous as you might like: We had to wait an hour to talk to a tax pro when we tested the service back in February — long before the last-minute crush to complete returns before the April 15 filing deadline. Still, if you fret over the accuracy of your return, TurboTax’s live assistance can prove both helpful and reassuring.

TurboTax’s program is easy to navigate, and filling out the return is pleasant enough, especially if you use other Intuit products and can easily import data from those programs. We found some of TurboTax’s interview questions to be a bit repetitive, however; and some screens have a lot of unused white space. H&R Block offers a better overall experience, but TurboTax’s extensive help options make this product a contender.

Read our full TurboTax review.
  

Credit: TaxActCredit: TaxAct

3. TaxAct

A lower-priced alternative

Rating: 4/5 stars

Available Products: Free ($0); Basic+ ($14.95); Deluxe+ ($47.95); Premier+ ($57.95); TaxAct Self-Employed+ ($77.95); State Return ($19.99 to $39.99)

Pros: Lower prices than rivals; Simple design uses clear language; Extensive array of products that support nonprofit organizations, estates and trusts in addition to individuals

Cons: No interactive screen-sharing help; No review with tax professional as an option

If you’re looking to save a little money on your return, TaxAct charges a little less than rival services while offering a product that’s nearly as easy to navigate. The big trade-off you’ll have to make is giving up the more extensive help options H&R Block and TurboTax offer. 

TaxAct does provide online support on tax terms and guidance for filing your return through searchable resources, and phone support can offer general explanations about the product and filling out your return. But you can’t share your screen during help sessions like you can with other services. And TaxAct doesn’t give you the option of letting a tax professional look at your return before you file — something H&R Block and TurboTax will do for an additional fee.

That extra level of protection may be worth giving up, though, if you’re confident about your ability to file a tax return. TaxAct has a clean interface and is designed to walk you through preparing a return. We particularly appreciated the questions the program asks that guide you to the right tier of service, and a checklist of documents we’d need to complete our return proved to be a welcome time-saver.

TaxAct’s array of online products cover a wide variety of tax situations, including estates and trusts. It’s definitely a solid alternative to its more well-known rivals.

Read our full TaxAct review.
  

How We Test Tax Preparation Software

For each tax preparation service, we go through the process of filling out our tax return and stop just short of filing the return electronically. We rate all the tiers for each service, starting our return with Deluxe — the first step above a free, basic return — and add other forms of income to see how each service handles upgrading us to different tiers.

If live help is offered, we test that feature in addition to exploring the help options included with the program. We evaluate tax preparation programs based on their ease of use, navigability and help options.

What Tax Preparation Software Costs

Each service we tested includes a free version, which covers the most basic tax returns and typically includes a free state return. If you own a home, itemize deductions, collect income from freelance or contract work, or own your own business, you’ll then upgrade to other tiers. Don’t worry about having to guess which tier of service you’ll need — as you fill out your return, the services reviewed here will prompt you to upgrade whenever you need a form that’s available in the next tier.

Prices for the most commonly used tax form — one for homeowners who itemize deductions — costs between $45 to $60, with live help adding to the cost. If you’re self-employed, plan on paying $80 to $120 for your return.

MORE: H&R Block vs. TurboTax: Online Tax Services Compared

State returns cost extra most of the time. (They’re free with the free versions of H&R Block and TurboTax.) Expect to pay $36 to $40 for a state return, though e-filing is included with the online product.

All three companies also provide downloadable versions of their tax software if you prefer not to use the online versions for whatever reason. Downloads from H&R Block and TaxAct cost a little more than the online versions; TurboTax’s downloadable products cost a little less for the Deluxe and Self-Employed tiers. In all instances, the downloadable version includes filing one state return.

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