The Best Services and Apps for Doing Your Taxes

Tax Sites: TurboTax Is Still the One to Beat

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TaxBrain 1040 Premium

TaxBrain has you fill out a questionnaire to determine which IRS forms you'll need to submit with your return.
Petz Enterprises’ TaxBrain 1040 Premium dispenses with the pretty colors and icons that other sites use in favor of a no-nonsense, blue-and-gray questionnaire and worksheet approach. You fill out a lengthy questionnaire, and TaxBrain decides--based on your answers--which forms you should be filing. It then presents you with the worksheets for those forms (also on a long list), and fills out the forms based on your input to the worksheets.

This method certainly gets the job done, but why would anyone pay $100--the second highest cost for federal and state returns with e-filing in this roundup--for such a bare-bones service? TaxBrain does not support importation of W-2 forms or of your previous year's returns from any competing service. It does let you import investment transactions from Gainskeeper.

Instead of using the Q&A approach found in most tax prep software, TaxBrain presents you with worksheets that look a lot like the IRS forms you have to file.
Each worksheet and questionnaire item links to explanations, but there's no real mechanism for additional help (other than links to IRS forms). The available chat line is for tech support, not tax help. Navigation isn't much of an issue since you can only go to worksheets for different federal forms. And there's no ticker showing where you stand in terms of owing taxes or getting a refund, because TaxBrain doesn't keep track until you've completed filling out all of the forms and submitted them to the service for calculation.

TaxBrain will sell you audit defense, and the site does offer a separate service for people who want to work with a tax pro. You can pay for a consulting session, hire someone to do your return, or pay even more for help in dealing with a problem such as an audit or a negotiation to reduce penalties.

But it's difficult to justify such a high cost for, essentially, figuring out which forms you need to file and filling them out. For most taxpayers, choosing one of the alternatives to TaxBrain should be a no-brainer.

CompleteTax Premium

CCH's CompleteTax Premium has made considerable strides in recent years, and today it provides a reasonably low-cost alternative to the higher-profile services. Preparing and e-filing tax returns for the federal government and one state will set you back $70; for another $20, you can get three months of unlimited phone access to a TaxHotline tax pro to answer specific questions.

CompleteTax may not have the slickest design, but it gets the job done and offers features such as a running tax ticker and bookmarks.
CompleteTax also offers a pretty good tax guide, FAQs, and context-sensitive help--all of them readily accessible via links in the right pane. Its user interface, though not as appealing as some of its pricier competitors', adheres to most of the popular conventions: You get a ticker showing whether you stand to get a refund or owe money based on the information you've provided; a progress bar; and (new this year) a bookmarking feature accessible via a pushpin icon at the bottom of each page.

A Quick Navigation link in the right pane takes you to a clickable list of general topics. The list doesn't drill down very deeply, but CompleteTax does an acceptable job of avoiding the clutter of putting too many items on a single page without forcing you to click an inordinate number of times to reach a specific item. (If anything, Complete Tax sometimes errs in the direction of cramming lots of questions on a single page.)

To attract customers from competing services, CompleteTax supports importation of PDFs for 2010 returns created by H&R Block at Home, TaxAct, and TurboTax. Unfortunately the feature didn't work especially well with my 2010 TurboTax Online Home & Business return: It put my husband's first name in both the first-name and last-name fields. As was the case with the other services I tested, the transfer didn't bring much--if any--Schedule C (sole proprietorship) information with it.

CompleteTax lets you add notes and create reminders on any page by clicking a pushpin icon to create a bookmark.
CompleteTax supports importation of W-2 data from employers who use ADP or TALX W2eXpress payroll services, though I wasn't able to test this functionality. The service doesn't support importation of data from financial institutions.

Overall, CompleteTax delivers good value for people who want some tax guidance (especially those who can import W-2 data from their employers' payroll provider) and are willing to forgo design niceties to save a few bucks. I wouldn't get too excited about the ability to import last year's return data, though, since it basically just saves you the trouble of entering a little personal information.

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