H&R Block

H&R Block ( HRB) offers the usual slate of tax products, ranging from simple and free to complex and data-heavy. Both online and physical software are available at a range of prices that reflect their features.

New for 2009 is a version called Best of Both. Taxpayers who spring for this $99.95 product can complete their filing online and submit them to an H&R Block tax professional, who will review, correct and certify the return.

The online service guides users in reporting investments, dividends, home sales and retirement income. Targeted advice, based on occupation, is offered for reporting self-employment income. Specialized categories -- "Life Changes," "Military Service and "Disaster Relief" -- help customers with special tax considerations.

Users are entitled to one live session with an H&R Block adviser, and the company will assign an agent to represent you if you are audited.

CompleteTax

CompleteTax isn't the prettiest of the programs, but it may be the best for more complicated returns.

We found ourselves initially put off by the fact that the mere act of reporting self-employment income required an upgrade to the top-tier, $50 premium version. But while other programs are capable of doing more for less, CompleteTax proves itself worthy of the extra cost.

While all the tax software we looked at do the same thing, we found that CompleteTax felt more professional, although it did take us longer to work through than its competitors.

The verdict

All the programs we tried got the job done with little pain. Our favorite, however, was CompleteTax. Even potentially complex situations, such as home foreclosures, retirement plans and business income oddities, were tackled in a logical, easy-to-understand way. It effectively handled every creative scenario we could concoct.

If your finances are straightforward, our runner-up, TaxACT is definitely worth a look. It's as robust as the rest of the field, but sports the most competitive price. If you're going to maximize your refund, why not start with shaving a few bucks off preparation?

There's no reason to avoid the other services. If you are being dragged into the world of binary-based tax preparation, the brand name cache and human backup offered by H&R Block may make you more comfortable.

We also have to single out TurboTax for the most comprehensive and creative slate of support offerings. We were particularly enamored of its interactive calculators, especially the TaxCaster 2009 and Life and Events Advisor. You can't file anything using TaxCaster, but the simple, streamlined set of buttons and sliders was fun to use and gave an accurate estimate of what an estimated liability/refund would be as variables were adjusted. Its polished user interface would benefit the flagship product.

More:

Tax Changes That Could Boost Your Return

How Obama's Budget Plan Could Affect You

Buying Time on Small-Business Taxes

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston.

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