The best tax filing software should do a decent impression of a human accountant, teasing out deductions and keeping your forms organized. After spending more than 30 hours over two years filing fake tax returns for four fictitious households--with the help of a professional tax preparer to test the hard return numbers--we found TurboTax to be the most conversational, fast, and comfortable way to file your return through a browser.
On top of running the hard numbers, we also spent time noting the interfaces of 14 competitors, and the upsell annoyances and year-to-year convenience of our five finalists. Our main pick, TurboTax, wasn't always the cheapest for complicated returns, but it can also be actually, entirely free for very simple returns. It made entering your financial data simpler and more comfortable than anything else we tested. If, however, you don't need your taxes explained, so much as a place to punch in the numbers, we have a stripped-down and (likely) cheaper pick for you, too.
How we tested tax software
Our four "fake filers" lived in different states, worked salary and independent jobs, had kids or rental properties or home offices, and ranged from a single guy in an apartment to a married couple with capital gains. We had their life details in a spreadsheet; we noted how TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxACT, FreeTaxUSA, and eSmart Tax differed in asking about their situations, and how they totaled out.
All of these online suites offer some version of a maximum refund guarantee, and, indeed, most produced the same results given the same numbers. We searched to find online tax suites that were known entities, and we focused on web options because they're more accessible to everyone. So we also considered how fast you could safely move through each form, and how intuitive the interface made going forward and back, or saving and coming back later. We also looked for a known and backed name, because you're handing over very sensitive data. And we wanted the pricing to be clear, fair, and not involve endless upgrade pitches. Check out our full guide to learn more about our criteria for narrowing down the field and testing.
TurboTax makes entering your tax data more simple and comfortable than anything else we tested. The account creation, login, and state-saving processes are smooth and sport lean, modern designs. The questions and categories are organized in a coherent flow, with live chat help available if you're lost, even for free filers. TurboTax can automatically fill in salary and charitable donation amounts, and handles the new Affordable Care Act requirements ably. TurboTax makes taxes feel less like spreadsheet data entry and more like signing up for a new social app.
A good interface and smooth interview flow matter for more than just style points. While the amounts of each return turned out more or less the same with every tax suite we tested, TurboTax made it easier to avoid potential mistakes and head back to double-check figures and results.
TurboTax could be the cheapest or most costly online tax software for you, depending on your needs. If you make less than $100,000, and have absolutely no itemized deductions, non-salary income, or other complications (meaning attached "schedules"), your taxes could cost nothing under TurboTax's Absolute Zero offer. Otherwise, state and federal filing under "Deluxe," "Premier," or "Home & Business" cost from $72-$117.
The runner-Up: FreeTaxUSA
If you don't qualify for TurboTax's Absolute Zero offer, but your taxes are still simple and consistent year to year, consider FreeTaxUSA. It's a minimal, straightforward set of boxes and some help to get your numbers in and send them out.
FreeTaxUSA is faster than TurboTax, remarkably cheap (free federal, $13 for one state filing, $19 for a slight Deluxe upgrade), and it gets the job done for those who know exactly what they earned and what they owe. It doesn't have the same smooth flow of TurboTax, and its text-focused screens can cause some motivational drag, but it does move quick and gives you a big-picture view of your income and deductions.
If you're under 22, FreeTaxUSA is free to use entirely. And FreeTaxUSA's pricing includes all the schedules and deductions an individual might need: rental or independent contractor income, home ownership and energy credit deductions, and more. As a final sweetener, you can see and download your returns in PDF form, as they would appear on a standard tax form. That's helpful for getting tax advice from another human, if you're not sure you've got everything right.
The other option: a human accountant
When our tax professional--Mark Francis, EA, of Lapidos, Leung & Francis, Inc. in San Francisco--ran our fake filers through each tax suite in 2014, he ended up with the same exact federal and state refund amounts for each. In 2015, when I ran a moderately complicated individual (home, rental property, investments) through each suite, I ended up with four different amounts. And none of the suites raised major red flags. If something has changed with your life or money in the past year, or you ever feel adrift while clicking through online tax forms, consider finding a local tax professional.
Is TurboTax actively allowing fraudulent tax returns?
The 2015 tax season has been heavy with news about TurboTax "fraud" or "hacks." Most notably, respected security journalist Brian Krebs detailed the allegations of two former TurboTax officers that TurboTax's parent company, Intuit, willfully ignores fraud concerns. The FBI and IRS may be investigating; TurboTax, for its part, denies the officers' claims and has a detailed response on security concerns.
These are (as of early March 2015) unproven allegations and, in some cases, misrepresentations of TurboTax's part in the problem. TurboTax, with 29 million customers in 2014, is by far the largest target for fraudulent filers, armed with sensitive data obtained through other breaches. In other words, avoiding the use of TurboTax to file your return this season will not protect you from potential fraud, especially if your data is already out there (or you've clicked a bad email phishing link). The IRS's unwieldy and insecure refund processes play a significant role, too.
Does this affect our recommendation of TurboTax? For those who want to file online, no--we still see TurboTax as the best tool for putting your return together and filing it online. And, as noted by Ars Technica, the other major tax suites are no better as securing your account; none of the major four we tested even verified your email address before allowing you to carry on toward filing. Choosing to avoid TurboTax over security concerns will not make you more or less of a potential fraud target.
If you've got all your forms and figures and want to file yourself, TurboTax is the best conversation you can have with an online server about your financial life. For those with more experience, or remarkably simple taxes, FreeTaxUSA is the fastest way to get to done. But leave yourself enough time this year for a back-up option: a human.
This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com