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Best tax software in 2021: manage and file federal and state taxes

Best tax software
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REASONS TO BUY
REASONS TO AVOID
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Choosing the best tax software is vital especially as tax filing time somehow always seems to be on the horizon. Filing federal taxes with the IRS, and your state taxes too are crucial tasks for most people, and deadlines are deadlines. So it’s wise to get a tax software solution to help you get the job done sooner rather than later. Tax software programs let you complete your tax returns online, so it’s pretty straightforward.

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Key players in the best tax software field include Intuit TurboTax, H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, Credit Karma Tax, FreeTaxUSA and Jackson Hewitt Online, but there are others. Tax software programs help you navigate official forms and, because they’re always being updated, conform to any changes in legislation. Our buying guide below will help you get a good idea of what the market leaders offer and their core features and functions.

You’ll need to be even more aware of federal income tax deadlines for 2021 too - see our FAQs at the bottom of this page. Keeping track of these essential dates for filing your 2020 tax return and making payments is just as crucial as having the best tax software to help you get the job done. 

The coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone, and there have been changes that take this into consideration. Again, these affect many if not all of us. All options are on offer below.

Here then are the best tax software platforms currently available.

Best tax software in 2021

(Image credit: H&R Block )

1. H&R Block

A versatile and good value tax filing option

Reasons to buy
+Easy to use+Great interface +Excellent free edition 
Reasons to avoid
-Tax pro advice for a fee

Perhaps it’s as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, but H&R Block promises more help for this season, with a Have a Pro Do It option. You can send an enrolled agent or CPA your documents and let pick through what you’ve supplied. They can subsequently complete your tax filing forms on your behalf. H&R Block is also continuing with its keenly priced package options.

H&R Block is certainly all about good value, but supplements that with lots of support for all kinds of tax filing requirements thanks to features like Online Assist and Tax Pro Review.

Most useful to less confident users is the option of dealing with real tax experts at many outlets across the US. There’s a brilliant free edition, H&R Block Free, which offers Form 1040 filing, along with sorting child tax credits, earned income tax credit and credit for the elderly or disabled.

Adding on filing options for schedules 1, 2 and 3 means H&R Block lets you cover a host of other tax bases too. Those with more complicated needs, such as landlords or freelancers should head towards the paid versions.

This tax tool is cloud-based, though there is a desktop edition, while the interface and general workspace is clean and easy to use. It’s possible to import W-2 and 1099 forms and H&R Block also integrates with other packages.

Help is plentiful and being cloud-based means you can log-in from other devices. Add-ons such as Online Assist for CPA help and Tax Pro Review come with extra costs involved, but this is one of the best tax filing options currently available in the US.

If you do your own taxes then get started with Online, which allows you to file easily and securely from either a computer or a smartphone. Choose Free Online if you have a W-2, kids and education costs. There’s a $0 charge per State filed too.

Deluxe Online is for maximizing credits and deductions, plus HSA contributions and currently costs $49.99, plus $44.99 per State filed. You can initially start for free.

Premium Online is aimed at freelancers, contractors and investors and is currently $69.99 plus $44.99 per State filed. It also allows you to start for free.

Self-employed Online, meanwhile, normally costs $104.99 plus $44.99 per State filed. It's aimed at small business owners as well as the self-employed. That too allows you to start for free.

H&R Block’s Online Assist packages on the other hand, allow you to file online with on-demand help from a tax expert, enrolled agent or CPA. Basic Online Assist costs $69.99 plus $39.99 per state filed and suits if you have a W-2, kids and education costs.

Deluxe Online Assist is $109.99 plus $44.99 per State filed and is for maximizing credits and deductions, plus HAS contributions. You can start for free. Premium Online Assist is aimed at freelancers, contractors and investors and is $159.99 plus $49.99 per State filed. That too allows you to start for free. Self-employed Online Assist, finally, is just that with help when you need it and costs $189.99 plus $49.99 per State filed, with a start for free option available.

(Image credit: Intuit)

2. TurboTax

A high-quality tax filing experience with a premium price

Reasons to buy
+Well-honed over the years  +Lots of functionality +Good live support 
Reasons to avoid
-Can prove costly

TurboTax is not cheap to use, but it does offer a quality experience via any one of its editions. There is actually a free edition, which allows Form 1040 filing but excludes schedules 1, 2 or 3.

Therefore, most users with anything more than very basic filing requirements should head in the direction of the Deluxe, Premier or Self-Employed packages. TurboTax is an online filing service, which delivers a simple interface that is no-frills but definitely bang on target for getting the job done.

You can import W-2 information from an employer and also upload a picture of it instead, which makes light work of basic filing tasks as does being able to import 1099s. The paid for editions also feature a practical ItsDeductible feature that works in tandem with a dedicated app.

Self-employed folks can use a similarly impressive expense tracking option via QuickBooks. TurboTax works on all platforms, either via a desktop web browser or using an app-based variation on a phone or tablet.

Support is plentiful and an added bonus is TurboTax Live that lets you speak with a CPA or enrolled agent year round. TurboTax can also help you with the dreaded audit situation.

Users will benefit from an even easier software experience this season thanks to several new features. Central to this is the ability to connect directly to your accounts from within TurboTax. This means that any relevant tax documents can be quickly uploaded and integrated into your form-filling duties. Lookout also for the interest free refund advance loan option along with a beefed up level of support from supporting tax experts.

(Image credit: TaxAct)

3. TaxAct

A simpler tax package for the budget-conscious filer

Reasons to buy
+Accuracy guarantee  +Affordable+Reasonable support
Reasons to avoid
-Quite a basic design -Extras come at a cost 

TaxAct has been around for long enough now to know how to help its users take on tax filing in no-nonsense fashion. While it’s often seen as a leaner, less flashy online package it does still let you get the job done easily.

There are four versions with a free edition allowing Form 1040 filing but not schedules 1, 2 or 3. So anyone with anything other than super-basic needs should investigate the Deluxe+, Premier + or Self-Employed+ editions.

The latter two come with advanced levels of support for obvious reasons. Filing duties are easily handled using the basic but intuitive site structure, plus there are some useful tools such as being able to import last year’s returns along with W-2 and 1099 forms.

TaxAct is another cloud-based online package, which can be accessed using a web browser as well as via a mobile app. A healthy level of support is on offer, but you’ll need to stump up for the better paid for versions to enjoy live assistance.

A Deluxe+ package costs $54.95, with an additional fee per State filed, and delivers everything in the free edition plus more besides. It’s ideally suited to homeowners plus those with deductions, credits and adjustments to file. 

The Premier+ model comes in at $79.95, with an additional fee per State filed, which includes everything in Deluxe+ with added features for investments, rental property and prioritized support. Top of the tree is the Self-Employed+ package, which for $109.95, with an additional fee per State filed, adds on Deduction Maximizer and year-round tax resources.

There are other options too, such as a business specific area of the TaxAct website. In here you’ll find a further four product options, such as for Sole Proprietor covering Form 1040, Schedule C, or Partnership Form 1065, or C Corporation Form 1120 and finally S Corporation Form 1120 S.

Tax Act does a nice line in bundle deals, where you can combine your individual and business tax software. You can also select downloadable editions of its Basic, Deluxe, Premier and Self-Employed packages too.

TaxAct has announced new features for its latest edition, with the most prominent addition being TaxAct Xpert Help. This is an add-on service, which provides users with unlimited, on-demand, one-on-one support. The help comes from professionals CPAs and tax experts and is available seven days a week.

(Image credit: TaxSlayer)

4. TaxSlayer

A more flexible solution for variable tax filing needs

Reasons to buy
+Flexible options+Very cost-effective  +Straightforward workspace
Reasons to avoid
-Support costs add up 

TaxSlayer has been around for a long time, so it’s been carefully honed over the years. The latest edition promises even more refinement, with an enhanced user experience and adjustments to its setup to reflect the current circumstances.

TaxSlayer is a little bit different to other cloud-based tax filing software services. Most notably, it’s got a pricing strategy that lets users get full value from its many and varied features while conversely making its support level costs more flexible.

In other words, you can get great value from its four different packages including Simply Free, Classic, Premium and Self-Employed and then only pay for additional help if you actually need it. A level playing field on the features front means that any of the packages can handle the same forms, though the Free edition does exclude schedules 1, 2 or 3.

Indeed, other limitations such as a taxable income under $100,000 will likely drive you towards the paid versions, but they’re all very useful. The TaxSlayer interface is up there with the best of the competition, but it’s leaner on the features front, such as lacking more sophisticated import of forms.

Nevertheless, it ticks over nicely in either a web browser format or through a mobile app edition. Help and support is at hand on all levels, though you’ll only get use of Ask A Tax Pro expert help from the Premium and Self-Employed packages.

If you’re starting out, have relatively simple tax affairs and are single, married and filing a joint return or a student then the basic Simply Free option is a good one. It allows you to file for no outlay with $0 State included. 

TaxSlayer’s stated ‘most popular’ package is the next one; Classic which is suited to all tax situations, can be started for free and costs $17. Meanwhile, Premium offers up a swift way to prepare and e-file, with the added bonus of priority support as and when you need it and costs $37. Finally, TaxSlayer’s Self-Employed product will set you back $47. There is an additional state fee for each package.

Even at these affordable prices, a notable feature is the included phone and email support (24 to 48 hour response) on the lower tiers, and live chat on the higher tiers. There is also an online guide to assist users in choosing the best version of the program for their needs.     

(Image credit: Jackson Hewitt Online)

5. Jackson Hewitt Online

Online tax filing with the back-up of nationwide store support

Reasons to buy
+A universal solution+Help from a professional+High accuracy guarantee
Reasons to avoid
-Can prove pricey

Jackson Hewitt Online is as much about having support from real people as it is getting you from the beginning to the end of your tax return. Jackson Hewitt Online has made amendments to its pricing structure this season, with $24 being the universal charge for state tax filing, or $25 for federal. 

Lookout for improvements to the user experience too. It’s perhaps no surprise to see that Jackson Hewitt Online is now incorporating cryptocurrency transactions into its form-filling credentials too.

While Jackson Hewitt Online can be accessed from anywhere with an internet connection and across platforms, it’s not as well focused for mobile users as the competition.

However, the real selling point for many will be the ability to visit a Jackson Hewitt Online outlet when and if it’s needed. Alongside the internet options, this is the other big bonus of using Jackson Hewitt Online because of the way that the service can be used in tandem with their physical branches across the US. 

Given that some issues with tax filing can be complex to explain, being able to talk things through in a real-world environment makes this support aspect of the Jackson Hewitt Online experience particularly practical.

(Image credit: Credit Karma Tax)

6. Credit Karma Tax

Tackle basic tax filing without any pricey overheads

Reasons to buy
+No charge+Easy enough to use+Simple layout
Reasons to avoid
-You’ll need a Credit Karma account

What’s new for Credit Karma Tax 2021?
Expect a better user experience with the latest incarnation of Credit Karma Tax. The new edition sports a revised navigation system that helps guide you through the various sections offering as much assistance as possible. Credit Karma Tax also got purchased by Square, the payment processing company, which could produce interesting developments further down the line.

Credit Karma will most likely be a familiar name as it’s been around for a number of years now, most notably supplying free credit scores. Its range of services now includes Credit Karma Tax, which is another online service for filing personal taxes. One of the most appealing aspects of Credit Karma Tax is that it’s free to use, although the trade-off to that is the fact you’ll need to sign up for a Credit Karma account.

If you’ve already got an account with them though it’s even easier to get started with the step-by-step filing process. Credit Karma Tax also benefits from the addition of support staff who are also on hand to help get you out of tricky tax spots.

(Image credit: FreeTaxUSA)

7. FreeTaxUSA

Free Federal tax software that delivers a powerful set of features

Reasons to buy
+File Federal taxes for free  +State tax filing affordable  +Guaranteed to be accurate 
Reasons to avoid
-Deluxe tier for priority support 

What’s new for FreeTaxUSA 2021?
While its free credentials make FreeTaxUSA appealing it hasn’t always offered the best user experience. This year, however, there have been minor tweaks. It’s hardly a radical overhaul, but users might appreciate the warning nudges that help flag up potential issues along the way.

Getting your taxes done for free does sound like an attractive offer, and yes, FreeTaxUSA being the name of this product does indicate the truth. Federal taxes can indeed be done for free - for all returns including a full 1040, and even more complicated tax situations such as an Earned Income Credit, or a K-1. Adding a State return tacks on an additional fee.  

Compared to the competition, FreeTaxUSA does indeed represent the bargain here. There is a higher Deluxe tier offered, which adds Audit Assist, Priority Support and can handle amended returns.

Best tax software Q&A

What are tax software programs?

You used to have to spend time collating your paperwork and filling in conventional paper forms. Now it can be done online using a tax software program. It’s often a far quicker and certainly more efficient way of staying on top of your tax affairs. The bonus is that tax software can help you build up historical data on your tax affairs, which helps complete future returns too.

Why do people need tax software programs?

Tax software programs are ideal for convenience. If you’ve got fairly typical tax matters to take care of and don’t need to see an accountant of CPA then they make great sense. Some tax programs actually combine online tax filing with advice from real advisors, either online or in person.

How much does a tax software program cost?

Now that there are many different tax software programs the competition is fierce. There are always tax software programs on special offer, along with other incentives to get you to commit to a certain brand. Some have one-off costs while others work on a subscription basis. There are even free tax software programs. Generally speaking, the more complex your tax affairs the more you’ll pay, which is much the same as if you were using a traditional accountant.

Which tax software is actually free?

It is possible to do your tax affairs for free, mainly if you have a simple tax return to file. H&R Block, TurboTax, TaxAct and TaxSlayer for example, have free editions. So, if your income comes from one job and you claim the standard deduction, that’s pretty straightforward. However, if things start getting more involved, such as if you need to itemize deductions, received income from other work or did anything else that complicates your tax picture then it’s probably best to bypass the free tax software and pick a paid-for package with features and functionality to meet your needs.

What is the tax deadline?

The IRS extended the tax deadline for filing 2019 returns as a result of Covid-19. This meant that the income tax filing and payment deadline moved, from April 15 to July 15, which was an extension of three months. Federal taxpayers had until this date to pay any outstanding taxes due for the 2020 tax year, which would have originally been payable on the original April 15 date.

There was also been the option to defer payments without incurring penalties of interest, irrespective of any amount outstanding. According to the IRS update, deferment applied to all taxpayers including individuals, trusts and estates, corporations and other non-corporate tax filers along with those who pay self-employment tax.

The IRS didn’t require any additional forms to be filled out and there was no need to call them in order to qualify for the relief. However, taxpayers who needed extra time to file after the July 15 deadline had to request a filing extension, using Form 4868 via their tax advisor, tax software or the Free File link on the IRS.gov website. In addition, businesses that needed extra time were required to file Form 7004.

This move was another of several government relief measures made in response to the coronavirus pandemic along with stimulus checks and boosted unemployment insurance.

What’s new for 2021?

As we all know, April 15 is the date that you have to file your federal income tax return each year. However, the date can change a little although this year it was extended. You had up to May 17 this year to file your personal income tax return. If you chose to do this then there were no late payment fee or interest penalties incurred. The move had been instigated by the IRS due to several factors, although the coronavirus pandemic has been one of the main reasons due to the substantial impact it has had on us all. 

It’s well worth visiting the IRS website in order to get the bigger picture on any other amendments that might have been made to other dates in your tax calendar. For example, there have been extensions for Partnership returns to September 15, the C-corporation income tax return deadline has moved to October 15, while the S-corporation return deadline is now extended to September 15. Given everything that has been happening due to coronavirus it’s vital to double-check with the IRS that the deadline you’re working to falls in line with any changes that have been made.

What if I miss the deadline?

It’s not a good idea to miss deadlines issued by the IRS as financial penalties could hit your pocket where it hurts. Extra interest charges for late filing could be charged and the same goes for paying any tax that’s due too. There are occasionally exceptions to the rules, where the public has been affected by the likes of the wildfires in California and others by Hurricane Delta. The obvious place to bookmark for precise guidance on this and other matters is, once again, the IRS website itself.

Are there any new tax forms for 2021?

When it comes to forms there are important issues to look out for as regards tax filing this year too, with the IRS taking the covers off two new forms. There’s a new Form 1040, which features a shakeup of the old layout and amendments to the way it is worded. 

There’s a useful option to include the signature of a third-party who can be authorised by you to liaise with the IRS to get your tax return completed correctly. You’ll even find provision for digital or virtual currency this time too, reflecting the growth in popularity of cryptocurrency.

Other areas are focused at improving the user experience, with the new Form 1040-SR aimed at making life easier for seniors with its easier-on-the-eye layout. 

Our buyer’s guide contains everything you need in terms of best tax software that can handle any changes to official forms. Most if not all tax software packages have either been updated or are undergoing overhauls to keep them fresh for 2021. You’ll see our reviews evolving as new editions get unveiled.

Tax software updates could mean anything from minor cosmetic or useability tweaks through to major amendments. Many of the more substantial updates to tax software packages take into account changes in legislation, official forms and, of course, coronavirus and the fallout from that.

You can find out more information on filing federal taxes at the IRS website.

Are there any tax software updates?

Each year presents new challenges for us the taxpayers, as well as the accountancy and tax software industry. Frequently there are changes to legislation and, on top of that, we’ve also had to endure the knock-on effects of a global pandemic. As a result, lookout for plenty of tweaks to the popular tax packages listed above.

For this tax season we’ve picked out some of the more notable changes to best-selling tax software, including the likes of H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer, Credit Karma and FreeTaxUSA. You’ll spot the latest amendments to their features and functions outlined in bold in the buyer’s guide. Remember that it’s best to invest a little in ensuring you have the latest tax software edition, just so you can be sure you’re getting the best help available, along with the latest functionality.

For example, this year has seen lots of financial assistance being granted to people across the US. While this is obviously welcome it has to be taken into consideration when you file your tax return. Make sure, therefore, that you’re up to speed with the changes, which any up-to-date tax package will take into consideration. It’ll make getting your taxes in order that much easier for sure.

When will I get my tax refund?

Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold the IRS, like everyone else, has been taking longer to get things done. This is a situation not helped due to staff shortages, plus a cocktail of other administrative backlogs. 

Currently the IRS is processing and issuing refunds as fast as it can, but this is generally taking more than 21 days for some 2020 tax returns that require review including incorrect Rebate Credit amounts, or that used 2019 income to figure the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Additional Child Tax Credit (ACTC). 

However, if you’re using a mobile device it’s possible to download the IRS2Go app, which lets you check your refund status. The software is also useful for making payments, finding free tax preparation assistance as well as offering access to tax tips.

What about federal taxes?

While there’s no escaping the need to pay your taxes, it’s also worth remembering that there are big differences between state and federal income taxes. There’s an obvious bonus to paying all of the different taxes, because ultimately your money does contribute to paying for everyday necessities such as government services that cover everything from education through to the upkeep of highways and all points in-between.

The difference between state and federal tax is pretty straightforward to understand. State taxes are collected by the different state governments, which allows them to cover their state-focused outgoings. However, remember that not all states have state income tax. Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington along with Wyoming don't have an income tax. Tennessee and New Hampshire only charge tax on unearned income.

Federal income taxes are handled by the federal government and the money you pay the IRS in tax is used to cover its bills. Federal income tax is related to any taxable income, including your wages along with capital gains. On top of all that, you may find that some locations are also subject to a local tax, which covers more specific costs closer to home, such as infrastructure overheads and maintenance.

What about state taxes?

As outlined above, it's important to remember that not every state has a state income tax. Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming, do not have an income tax. Others, such as New Hampshire and Tennessee tax dividend and interest income, but not earned income.

Instead, these states supplement state income in other ways, such as through property taxes, sales taxes, and a variety of other forms of small taxation.

Additionally, a number of states do not charge state income tax unless you earn over a certain threshold, so low-income workers may not have any state income tax to pay anyway.

However, there are nine states where a flat-rate state income tax is charged regardless of earnings, and these are: Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Utah.

It therefore remains important to be able to identify your tax liability according to the state you reside in, according to your earnings.

Which tax package should I choose?

The range of best tax software covers all bases, so it’s more than likely there’ll be a package to suit your needs. Of course, we’ve all got different financial affairs to take care of, so it’s well worth picking through the different tax software packages we’ve got listed below. 

Using a cloud-based tax software package has become hugely popular as all of your data is stored online. In many cases you can dip in and out of your tax filing, which can be handy if you need to go away and get more information. Tax software basically emulates IRS forms and procedures, so that you can easily navigate tax form filling with built-in help and guidance along the way. Some tax software programs offer mobile editions, so you can even work on the go.

How do I choose tax software?

A few factors are worth considering before you pick one to take on your tax matters. If you’re one of the many taxpayers who take the standard deduction and have a relatively straightforward return to file then one of the cloud-based solutions in this guide will certainly help you to get the job done. Credit Karma Tax is a great example, but there are variations on the theme. 

Those with more challenging tax returns to file will need a little more software muscle, which is where a cloud-based package like TurboTax Deluxe might fit the bill. Again, there are rivals that largely offer the same features and functions, as you’ll see in the overview of each product below. 

Finally, what sort of budget do you have for your tax software? There are free tax software packages, while others charge you based on the amount of features and functions you’re going to use. Meanwhile, tax software at the top of the pile lets you do everything and anything related to tax affairs, but you’ll probably pay more. Spend a bit more and you might even benefit from being able to combine cloud-based form filling with real-time tax advice from advisors.