They say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. You can add another inevitability to the mix, though, and that is the proliferation of online tax prep software packages.
In 2019, there are 21 overall different online tax options. However, there are really just three major players in online taxes - TurboTax, H&R Block Online and Tax Act. All three perform the same function, but how they do it differs. Breaking down how each online system works can help you determine which one is right for you.
Of the three major players, TurboTax has far and away the most tools for the DIY tax preparer. They offer both online and mobile apps, and they leverage technology in such a way to make filing your taxes easier.
For those with simple taxes, TurboTax offers a free option. If your taxes are a little more involved, there are premium options. This is perhaps the one knock on TurboTax, as their premium packages are generally more expensive than the other major competitors.
Entering W-2s, which can be some of the more tedious work when doing your own taxes, is streamlined in a couple ways. First, you can simply take a picture of your W-2 and upload it, or, if your employer is a TurboTax partner, it can be imported in just a few clicks.
Overall, the experience is an easy one. There are abundant help screens throughout the filing process, and this year the service debuts TurboTax Live, which can connect you through a one-way video to a tax professional that can answer any questions you have.
H&R Block is one of the major players in tax preparation, and H&R Block Online continues that trend.
Even before online taxes were a thing, H&R Block's one calling card was making sure that there was a real live human being ready to assist when you needed it. This year is no different, and it comes cheaper than TurboTax. You have the option of almost instantaneous online chat, or you can also get help via the phone. For those who prefer to be face-to-face to get help, H&R Block offers Tax Pro, which allows you to visit a brick and mortar location for assistance.
However, H&R Block stumbles a bit when it comes to how their online system flows. It's a lot more rigid than TurboTax, not allowing you to skip ahead. It's also not as intuitive at predicting what help you are going to need.
For those that are really trying to maximize their refund, there is Tax Act. They are far and away the cheapest online tax platform, but that comes with other costs.
Tax Act is the least intuitive and hardest to navigate. Much of the interface is text-based, which seems nice and clutter-free at the start, but leaves you feeling like you are on an island by the end.
They are also missing a few tax forms that make it a challenge to e-file in certain states. Most of the missing forms are related to corporations or small businesses, which makes Tax Act a non-starter for people with those sorts of entanglements.
In the positive column for Tax Act is the fact that a full seven years' worth of returns is available online for free. TurboTax charges $50 for that feature, H&R Block stores only three years' worth of returns.
As online tax preparation becomes a bigger trend, expect these competitors to continue adding features. It's up to each individual to cut through the hype and decide for yourself which competitor fits your individual needs.