Saturday, February 16, 2008
What's New in Tax-Prep Software
THE MAJOR PUBLISHERS OF TAX preparation software spiffed up their wares in a big way this year, but—alas—very little of the sheen extends to the frequent trader. TurboTax and TaxCut have improved front-ends and smooth interview processes to guide you. They just don’t improve your Schedule D experience.
This is a problem primarily for those who trade options, futures and commodities. Though TurboTax does a better job, both programs struggle with multiple strike prices and expiration dates for the same underlying issue. TurboTax and TaxCut officials told The Electronic Investor upgrading the functions for Schedule D preparation wasn’t a priority this year.
If your Schedule D is less complicated, however, the programs do a good job of making the process relatively painless. We examined H&R Block’s TaxCut Premium Federal + State + E-file ($69.95) and Intuit’s TurboTax Premier ($74.95), and also took a look at 2nd Story Software’s TaxACT Ultimate Bundle ($19.95).
Part of our review is an attempt to import a large file of transactions from an online broker. This test account has about 300 options transactions, so it’s a good way to stress-test a tax-prep program.
TaxACT (http://www.taxact.com) doesn’t import data automatically from online brokerage accounts, which means you must do it manually. It can download them via Gains-Keeper, which is an add-on capital-gains program provided by some online brokers; it can also import W-2 data directly from a small set of employers.
We found TaxACT very simple and a definite bargain, but with few of the creature comforts found in its beefier cousins. The interview is conducted in the top portion of the screen, while the bottom part displays the form you’re filling in. It gave me a 1990s flashback. It is inexpensive, however, so people with more time than money should consider this program.
Even cheaper is TaxACT’s online bundle, a mere $16.95. The price for both CD-based and online Ultimate bundles includes one e-filing for both federal and state, which is quite a bargain.
TaxCut (http://www.taxcut.com) and TurboTax (http://www.turbotax.com) remain the heavyweights. As in years past, TurboTax did a better job parsing the large transaction file. Another nice feature: TurboTax is able to find the purchase price of a stock you bought long ago, which helps if your record-keeping is spotty. Provide the date you purchased a stock or mutual fund, and TurboTax fills in the closing price for that date as your cost basis.
TurboTax also allows you to import data from a huge range of banks, online brokers and other financial institutions.
A feature enhanced in this year’s TurboTax is Live Community, which lets you get feedback on tax-prep questions from TurboTax support staff and other users. That could come in handy in those last few April days before returns are due.
E-filing costs an additional $17.95 per return (federal and state), which makes TurboTax software the most expensive of the lot. TurboTax Online’s Premier version, however, is $49.95 and includes a free federal e-file. There isn’t a huge gap between online capabilities and the CD-based program any more, so using the online version will save you some money.
TaxCut has a feature called “Worry-free Audit Support” for returns filed electronically that were prepared with its software. The support aids with IRS communications, helps prepare for an audit and sends an H&R Block agent with you should that unhappy circumstance occur. Also included: free tax advice from a professional.
TaxCut simplified its user interface, and the program is easy to navigate. You can find your way around the interview quickly, using a multi-level tab-menu system. TaxCut also has a Macintosh version, and its Online service, which includes an e-file, is $44.95. The online Signature offering, which is $79.95, lets you use the Premium version to enter your tax info, then send it to an H&R Block tax pro who will review, edit, sign and e-file your return.
H&R Block just released an online tax- preparation program called Tango ($70, http://www.hrblock.com/tango), which promises a cool and fun (yes, fun) tax-prep experience, but its investment tracking isn’t enough for the typical Barron’s reader.
We like TurboTax for the investing do-it-yourselfer, and the peace of mind offered by TaxCut for those less confident about their accounting mojo.
If you choose to prepare your taxes online, do it early. Though all the tax software publishers say they’ve beefed up their systems so that last-minute filers won’t face slowdowns, I’d rather not be beta-testing that promise at midnight on April 15.
Published in Barron’s, February 11, 2008