Let me first say that this is not a review of the tax-preparation programs out there.
A good review would take at least three different tax returns with entirely different taxissues and work each of them through the different tax-preparation programs.
I didn't do that. Quite frankly, I don't have that kind of time. I still have to get my returndone!
And let's face it, if you stick with a big name, such as TaxCut, TurboTax, CompleteTax or TaxAct,you really can't go wrong.
They all have a thorough interview process that asks you a bunch of questions and then justplops the numbers on the tax forms, unbeknownst to you. They all offer assistance along the waywith Q&As and online research. And they all enable you to electronically file your completed return.
And many of you will just stick with the program you used last year, because all yourinformation will be carried forward, and that's fine. The end result is the same.
But if you're looking for a new one this year or you're one of the 17 million people stillusing pen and paper (please stop!), read on to find out which program will satisfy your particularneeds. Because as similar as these products are, they each make an attempt to differentiatethemselves. So here are some of the things that make them stand out from their competitors.
Calling All Traders
CompleteTax is put out by CCH, a company that has been providing tax and business lawinformation to the pros for years. CCH hopped into the consumer market six years ago, andthe company's tax-prep product holds its own.
The biggest perk to CompleteTax, which is only available online, is its relationship withGainsKeeper.com, a tax lot accounting program. GainsKeeper tracks all the corporate actions thatcomplicate the stocks in your portfolio and continuously updates your basis, a.k.a. your originalcost. So when you sell your holdings, you'll know exactly what your cost basis is, even after yourstock merged, split and offered a distribution.
If you happen to track your trades with GainsKeeper, you can import all your trading activityright into CompleteTax, and the tax program will then get that information onto the proper tax forms. Ifyou do a lot of trading, this could be a great combo for you.
If you don't use GainsKeeper, then TurboTax may be a good option if you do a lot of trading.TurboTax allows you to import your Form 1099 data right from your broker onto your tax return.Remember, Form 1099 reports your trading activity, and TurboTax has relationships with more than 100financial institutions. Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and Dreyfus were added this year,says spokeswoman Julie Miller.
So if you have an account with any of the 100 financial institutions listed, then you'llbe able to import that information right into TurboTax. That will save you a ton of time, because you'dotherwise have to input every trade.
Need More Hand-Holding?
Let's say you prepare your return yourself but you really would like a pro to look it over.
"Signature" product may be the solution for you.
"It's a hybrid between a do-it-yourself program and the benefits of a professional," says H&RBlock's spokesman Tom Linafelt.
Here's how it works. You go through the interview process and prepare your return. When youare finished, you can then talk to an H&R Block professional who will review your return, discuss any changes you should make and then sign and electronically file your return foryou. That's right, H&R Block signs your return. That takes a load of liability off your shoulders.
All for only $80. No wonder it was the company's best-selling product last year.
If you have no interest in preparing your return but don't feel like dealing with office visitseither, H&R also offers an online drop-off option. "Essentially it's a professional tax preparationthat eliminates the need for an office visit by using the Internet," says Linafelt.
So you answer a few questions online, then you can either email, fax or drop off your documentsat a local office. The pro will prepare your return, sign it and e-file it for you. The coststarts at $80, but the price may go up depending on the complexity of your return.
Another big note: If you have to file multiple states, www.hrblock.com will let you e-file themall. The competitors only allow one state e-file.
It's All About the Money
If it comes down to the dollars for you, TaxAct might be the way to go.
While most of the programs cost anywhere from $20 to $50 depending on how many state returnsyou need to prepare, you can get TaxAct's "Ultimate Bundle" for a mere $15.95. You have to use theonline version of the program to get this price, but then you can prepare and e-file your federaland one state return. Not a bad deal.
Some DIY Tips
Before you sit down to prepare your return, pour yourself a cup of coffee and put on yourfuzzy slippers. This process will take you a few hours, so gear yourself up.
Get all your documentation together so that you have everything in front of you when theprogram's interview starts asking you questions.
In most instances, you'll have to pay before you can e-file so have your credit card ready.Also, if you're getting a refund and want it directly deposited into your checking account, havethat number and the usual related ones handy too.
Pay attention to hidden fees. That means do not request a "refund anticipation loan" so thatyou can receive your refund early! These loans charge ridiculous interest rates that can run on anannualized basis well into triple figures. If you e-file, you'll get your refund in two weeksanyway, so there is no need to pay ridiculous interest rates just to have it a few days earlier.
And don't have payments taken out of your refund. Just use your credit card to pay, otherwiseyou'll be hit with a processing fee. As an example, TurboTax charges $19.95 to have payments takenout of your refund.
Just because you clicked "send" and e-filed doesn't mean you're done. Be sure to check backin a day or two to make sure the IRS accepted your return. You'll then be assigned a unique14-digit Declaration Control Number, or DCN, that serves as proof that your return has been acceptedas electronically filed. So keep that number in your records.
Don't forget, if you owe money to Uncle Sam, you still have to pay him, even if you e-file. Foryour federal return, you can either use a credit card or have your bank account debited. Somestates will let you do the same.
To pay your federal taxes by mail, send Form 1040V along with your check. To pay your statetaxes by mail, send a check with the corresponding form for your state.
So just because I didn't officially review these products doesn't mean you can't. If you havea favorite tax-prep program,
let me know.
Tracy Byrnes is an award-winning writer specializing in tax and accounting issues. As a freelancer, she has written columns for wsj.com and the New York Post and her work has appeared in SmartMoney and on CBS MarketWatch. Prior to freelancing, she spent four years as a senior writer for TheStreet.com. Before that, she was an accountant with Ernst & Young. She has a B.A. in English and economics from Lehigh University and an M.B.A. in accounting from Rutgers University.