Best tax software 2020: TurboTax, H&R Block, and more

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Alyssa Powell/Business Insider

Use the best tax software to save money on your taxes.

The best tax software:

  • TurboTax: Best tax software overall
  • H&R Block: Best tax software for free filing
  • 1040.com: Best tax software for non-W-2 income
  • eFile.com: Best tax software for small business owners
  • H&R Block: Best tax software for first-time filers
  • TaxAct: Best tax software for experienced filers

Most Americans dread filing taxes. It can be costly, confusing, or just plain tedious ... but it has to be done.

The good news is that if you have a straightforward financial situation, there are free and simple tax filing options available online.Advertisement

If your situation is more complex - you have side jobs, own a business, live and work in different states, or earn income from a trust, for example - you can expect to pay to file your federal income tax return, and probably your state return, too.

But where do you start? And who has the best tax software or online tax filing service for your situation?

Taxes are incredibly nuanced and it's naive to assume one person's filing experience will be like another's because they use the same tax preparer. That said, there are some companies that excel in certain niches, like helping small business owners navigate deductions or walking first-time filers through loads of tax jargon.
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In order to determine the best tax software, we reviewed offerings from about a dozen online tax preparers, most of which are included in the IRS Free File Alliance, meaning they offer filers who earn up to $69,000 the ability to file their taxes for free.

We focused on a few important factors that we deem essential to any good filing experience: comparatively low cost, easy to use, good value, breadth of tax forms supported, ability to put off payment until the return is ready to file, easy W-2 or 1099 import or upload, an accuracy guarantee/liability, and optional audit support.Below you'll find out picks for the best tax software.Advertisement

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TurboTax: Best tax software overall

Why it stands out: TurboTax delivers in all areas of tax preparation with options aplenty. It offers $0 federal and state filing with no income limits for W-2 earners, plus a clear and structured question-and-answer format to help filers with more complicated financials - e.g. a mortgage, investment income, education expenses, self-employment income, itemized deductions, etc. - find the right paid product and make the most of every deduction available to them.

While its biggest competitor, H&R Block, is cheaper, TurboTax has at least two notable edges: It supports income from estates and trusts (Schedule K-1) and it offers QuickBooks integration for self-employed filers who track their business expenses all year long. Both tax preparers have excellent user interfaces - the superior choice is usually a matter of personal preference.Advertisement

Cost:

  • Deluxe online filing - $40 federal return fee; $40 additional state return fee
  • Premier online filing - $70 federal return fee; $40 additional state return fee
  • Self-Employed online filing - $90 federal return fee; $40 additional state return fee

For nearly double the prices listed above, you can buy TurboTax Live, which gives you instant access to an expert who can review your tax return for accuracy before you submit, if that's important to you.

In addition to online filing services, TurboTax sells desktop software for a slight markup. Unless you need more hand holding and/or you want to be able to complete your tax return without internet connection, you probably don't need to splurge for the downloadable software.Advertisement

What to look out for: One of the biggest complaints about TurboTax is the ease with which it attempts to upgrade users to the next-tier product, so beware of the upsell. You should also avoid paying your filing fee out of your refund, unless you're OK with an extra $40 processing fee tacked on to your total.

And a word to the wise: If you're looking for TurboTax's completely free filing service, don't go through the IRS Free File portal or you'll be met with a $32,000 income restriction.

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H&R Block: Best tax software for free filing

Why it stands out: H&R Block is part of the IRS Free File Alliance, which enables free filing for taxpayers with up to $69,000 in income, but you can file both your federal tax return and state tax return with H&R Block's free file edition regardless of how much you earned.

H&R Block's free file version supports W-2 income, interest income, dividend income, retirement distributions, the student loan interest deduction, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is more than TurboTax covers for free.H&R Block is well-reviewed by novices and experts alike for its clear instructions, explanations of tax concepts, easy-to-use interface, and helpful customer service.Advertisement

Cost: $0 federal return fee; $0 state return fee.

What to look out for: You can't itemize with H&R Block's free edition. Limitations exist for homeowners, freelancers, and business owners.

Similarly to TurboTax, if you want to use H&R Block's free edition, we recommend navigating directly to the website instead of going through the IRS Free File portal or you'll hit a landing page that enforces a $69,000 income limit.Advertisement

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1040.com: Best tax software for non-W-2 income

Why it stands out: 1040.com works well for newbies and experienced filers alike. Like most of the online tax services, it uses a question-and-answer format to help filers navigate deductions and credits, but you can also jump directly to certain forms if you're well-versed.

Best of all, there are no price tiers or product comparisons - just one flat fee that covers everything, and you don't have to pay until you're ready to submit your return. People with income beyond W-2 earnings typically pay a premium to file their taxes, but this service levies no upcharge for reporting self-employment income, business income, estate or trust income, or foreign earned income.Advertisement

Plus, you can file multiple state returns at no extra cost.

Cost: $25 federal return fee; $0 state return fee.

What to look out for: If you choose to pay for 1040.com filing through your refund, you'll be charged an additional $25 processing fee. An outside audit protection service, which is included at no extra cost with the big tax preparers, will set you back $30.Advertisement

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eFile.com: Best tax software for small business owners

Why it stands out: If you know you're going to report business, trust, or complicated investment income, you can go straight to eFile.com's premium package, which is comparable to H&R Block's and TurboTax's self-employment options but offered at a fraction of the price. It may not feel as professional as the others, but eFile.com offers all the same important features.This option is best for small business owners who generally know how business income tax filing works and don't need a ton of hand holding. If questions do arise, you have access to a "Taxpert," though reviews suggest you shouldn't expect quick answers. If your return is rejected by the IRS for any reason, you can refile at no extra charge.Advertisement

Cost:

  • Deluxe online filing - $25 federal return fee; $29 additional state fee (unlimited returns)*
  • Premium online filing - $35 federal return fee; $29 additional state fee (unlimited returns)*

*Prices are rounded to the nearest dollar.

What to look out for: Don't get fooled into paying the online servicer out of your refund - it'll be an extra cost of about $25.Advertisement

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H&R Block: Best tax software for first-time filers

Why it stands out: First-time filers are generally younger and presumably cost-conscious. H&R Block is cheaper than TurboTax, but still provides more than enough hand holding for a novice. It also uses a question-and-answer format to guide you to the right online filing product and make sure you get every deduction or credit you qualify for.

H&R Block also has affordable options for those who would rather outsource the work to a tax professional through Tax Pro Go. Filing fees range from $49 for simple, W-2 earners to $249 for business owners (plus $39 state filing fees) - and you don't ever have to step foot in an office.Advertisement

Cost:
  • Deluxe online filing - $30 federal return fee; $37 additional state return fee*
  • Premium online filing - $50 federal return fee; $37 additional state return fee*
  • Self-employed online filing - $80 federal return fee; $37 additional state return fee*

*Prices are rounded to the nearest dollar.

For an additional cost, you can get on-demand and unlimited help from an expert with H&R Block's Online Assist service, which includes screen-share capabilities and instant chat. There's also downloadable software if you want to work through your taxes on a desktop. It's cheaper than TurboTax, but again, just filing online is suitable in most cases.Advertisement

What to look out for: It may sound easy to pay your filing fee directly out of your refund, but H&R Block will charge an extra $40 processing fee.

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TaxAct: Best tax software for experienced filers

Why it stands out: If you've filed many times over and feel confident navigating tax jargon, TaxAct is a good middle-of-the-road option: It's cheaper than the industry stalwarts and still gets the job done.Advertisement

Each of its online filing options is a good bet, but independent contractors may find extra value with the self-employed option, which spends extra time identifying industry-specific deductions, whether you're a freelance writer, business consultant, teacher, or musician.

Filers can also import previous years' returns from another preparer to speed up the data-entry process. If questions arise along the way, TaxAct experts are available via email, chat, or phone.

Cost:Advertisement

  • Free online filing - $0 federal return fee; $0 additional state return fee*
  • Deluxe online filing - $30 federal return fee; $40 additional state return fee*
  • Premier online filing - $40 federal return fee; $40 additional state return fee*
  • Self-employed online filing - $75 federal return fee; $50 additional state return fee*

*Prices are rounded to the nearest dollar. All options are available to active duty military at no cost.

TaxAct also has downloadable software, but it's pricier than its online counterpart.

What to look out for: You won't get the moment-to-moment guidance and technical breakdowns that TaxAct's higher-end competitors are known for. If you need to file a return for estate or trust income, you'll need to buy a separate package for about $110, plus an additional $50 state return fee. Advertisement

Other tax services we considered and why they didn't make the cut:

  • Credit Karma: Credit Karma offers a generally good online tax service, in large part because it's completely free regardless of income level. What it doesn't cover, however, could be a deal breaker for some people, including disallowing returns for people who earned income in a state they don't reside in.
  • Liberty Tax: eSmart tax by Liberty Tax offers three separate paid products at generally affordable prices, but none of them stand out against competitors.
  • TaxSlayer: Among the cheapest options for e-filing, TaxSlayer is comparable to TaxAct, but reviewers say the former's user interface can become monotonous and it's difficult to return to previous sections.
  • FreeTaxUSA: FreeTaxUSA may be the lowest-cost option on the market, but it's not the best service for anyone who needs help maximizing their deductions or understanding tax forms.
  • 1040Now.net: Despite its IRS Free File Alliance status, there are much cleaner, more modern options than filing your taxes online through 1040Now.net.
  • ezTaxReturn.com: ezTaxReturn.com is also part of the IRS Free File Alliance, offering free federal returns for taxpayers who earn less than $69,000 and live in qualifying states, but it restricts too many types of self-employment income to be the best.
  • FileYourTaxes.com: You can get a free federal tax return through FileYourTaxes.com if you made between $9,000 and $69,000 last year, thanks to the IRS Free File Alliance. Independent of that, the company charges filers a nearly $45 base price for federal returns in addition to individual fees for every tax form they need.
  • Online Taxes, OLT.com: Another IRS Free File Alliance member that allows you to file a federal return at no cost if you earned less than $69,000, but there's nothing that stands out about the interface compared to other online tax preparers.

Frequently asked questions:

Why trust our recommendations?

At Personal Finance Insider, we strive to help smart people make the best decisions with their money. Filing taxes can seem like a frustrating task for many of us and we want to help make the process easier and more affordable.

As previously mentioned, "best" is often subjective - there's no single tax software or online tax filing service that will work for everyone. Not only are taxes highly personal, but there isn't one universal user experience. That's why we reviewed about a dozen of the most popular tax preparers to identify their top strengths and weaknesses.

How did we choose the best tax software?

We started with a list of tax preparers included in the IRS Free File Alliance, which offer filers who earn up to $69,000 the ability to file their taxes for free. (You can use the IRS Free File Lookup Tool to determine whether you qualify for free filing.)Advertisement

All of these companies offer online tax filing services and a few, H&R Block and TurboTax included, also sell downloadable software for your computer, which you can use to fill out your tax return without an internet connection.

We also considered a few tax preparation companies not currently on the IRS Free File list, including 1040.com and Credit Karma.We realize that if you're searching for the best tax software, you're probably either willing to spend time filing your own return or you're looking for a more affordable option than hiring a tax professional.Advertisement

With that in mind, we weighted heavily the following factors: cost, ease of use, value, the breadth of tax forms supported, the ability to put off payment until the return is ready to file, easy W-2 or 1099 import or upload, an accuracy guarantee/liability, and optional audit support.

Finally, we consulted other experts, like Wirecutter and Nerdwallet, to make sure we weren't missing any major features or drawbacks of any of the services.

Which online tax filing is the best?

According to our research, TurboTax offers the widest selection of comprehensive tax software and online tax filing options on the market right now.Advertisement

That said, every American who qualifies to file their taxes for free should be able to do so without deception. A 2019 investigation by ProPublica found that Intuit, TurboTax's parent company, and H&R Block were deliberately hiding their free filing services from Google and other search engines, which led the IRS to announce early this year that the companies would be prohibited from doing so going forward.

Despite this, we still feel TurboTax offers a valuable and honest product for filing your taxes. Also, as with any financial product, it's in your own best interest to stay vigilant.

What is the best tax software for small businesses?

TurboTax offers a very comprehensive online tax filing service for small business owners, but for a much cheaper option, try eFile.com. This option is best for business owners who generally know how business income tax filing works and don't need a ton of hand holding.Advertisement

How should I choose a tax software?

If you're easily overwhelmed by taxes, the best tax software is going to be one that does most of the work for you; H&R Block and TurboTax are wildly popular for this reason. All you have to do is upload the relevant tax forms and answer a few questions along the way to account for deductions and credits. These two tax preparers have multiple options for filers with any and every type of income, as well as individualized help from a CPA or enrolled agent for an additional fee, if you need it.

If your main objective is to save money on tax filing, check out the IRS Free File partners first. If your income is too high to qualify for free federal and/or state filing, consider budget options like TaxAct, eFile.com, 1040.com, and TaxSlayer. These companies offer tax software for a fraction of the price of H&R Block and TurboTax and still permit tax form uploads and provide a reasonable level of guidance throughout the process.

If getting a big tax refund is most important to you and you have time to spare, you may want to fill out a tax return with a few different online preparers. Each of the companies on our best tax software list allows you to begin a tax return for free and pay only when you're ready to submit the return (you will need to set up an account, though). Before payment is required, you should be able to see your tax refund amount and cancel any filing application that doesn't give you the biggest refund.Advertisement

Tanza Loudenback has been writing about money every day for more than three years. She is an expert on strategies for building wealth and financial products that help people make the most of their money. She is in the process of becoming a licensed CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ (CFP).

Disclosure: This post is brought to you by the Personal Finance Insider team. We occasionally highlight financial products and services that can help you make smarter decisions with your money. We do not give investment advice or encourage you to adopt a certain investment strategy. What you decide to do with your money is up to you. If you take action based on one of our recommendations, we get a small share of the revenue from our commerce partners. This does not influence whether we feature a financial product or service. We operate independently from our advertising sales team.

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