How to Choose the Right Online Do-It-Yourself Tax-Prep Product

Tobie Stanger

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

At their core, the major brands of online do-it-yourself tax preparation are alike. H&R Block, TaxAct, TaxSlayer and TurboTax—the four big ones—can all adequately guide and prompt you through pages of questions about your tax situation. All offer several ways to access tax information and advice. All guarantee accurate calculations.

But it’s the extra features that can make one product shine above the others. And this tax season—the first reflecting the major changes created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act—having your DIY tax-prep product provide accurate and relevant guidance is key.

To help you choose the right online tax-prep product for your situation, we evaluated the advice, information, and user experience of these services, as well as their mobile versions.

To evaluate, a CR reporter used her own tax situation: a household with two W-2 wage forms, a mortgage, a home-equity line of credit, and charitable contributions. The reporter was on the borderline between itemizing or taking the new, higher standard deduction. She used the least-expensive version of each service that would handle her situation and include the opportunity to get help from a tax professional through available help channels (e-mail, chat, phone or one-way videoconferencing). The online products tested were H&R Block Deluxe, TaxAct Online Deluxe+, TaxSlayer Premium, and TurboTax Deluxe.

All the products let the reporter start them for free, though she had to pay to access some of TaxSlayer’s advice.

She asked questions of each services' tax pros in order to gauge accuracy and response time. In the pros’ responses, she looked for nuances that a boilerplate answer in a tax program might not provide—but that a human might know to bring up.

She also played around with each program, attempting to add a hypothetical adult dependent; inputting erroneous figures from a W-2 to see which programs noticed, and spot-checking each service's database of tax information for accuracy and currency.

Finally, she considered how easy the systems were to use, including navigation and data entry. She did the same for each product's mobile version, using an iPhone 7 and Motorola moto g6. She also used a Samsung Galaxy S9 for some biometrics testing. She also looked at special features and the depth of information that each brand provides.

Our electronics experts also ran diagnostic tests on the apps, mainly related to privacy and security.

What We Found

Most notably, we found at least one glitch within each of the DIY programs or their tax-advice services. Some of the issues were minor, but others could affect what you end up owing, or how much you get back from the IRS. (Read details of the problems we found.)

The four online tax-prep services in our evaluation all offer expert "human" advice for a price. For example, TurboTax Deluxe ($59.99) charges an extra $60 for what it calls its “Live” service that connects you by phone with a CPA. H&R Block ($49.99) charges a $39.99 add-on for its Ask a Tax Pro service, which could connect you by chat to a pro who is a CPA or an enrolled agent (EA), an individual federally licensed by the IRS to prepare individual tax returns.

TaxAct says its online tax specialists take 80 to 100 hours of training—among other requirements—and are supervised and supported by EAs. TaxSlayer told us some of its Tax Pro agents are "IRS-certified or currently in the process of completing their certification." They also include CPAs and EAs.

Otherwise, all four of the services are generally easy to navigate. However, there are key variations, noted in the chart below.



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Tax product

Benefits

Flaws

H&R Block Deluxe plus upgrade

$49.99 federal, $36.99 for each state. $39.99 for live expert tax advice. Price may change.

Upload of W-2 with a smartphone requires no downloaded app to use. Simple design and useful explanations throughout the guided experience. Clear language. App has good navigation.

A tax pro’s answer to a tax question, provided through chat, was not entirely accurate. Guided program had design flaw in determining an adult dependent. Refund "ticker" not well-labeled.

TaxAct Online Deluxe+

$30.95 federal, $33.96 for each state. Price guaranteed at the time you start, regardless of when you file.

Lots of tax information and explanations.

Some tax information was out of date. We got no phone or email responses to tax questions.

TaxSlayer Premium

$37 federal, $29 for each state. Price may change.


Good explanations. Our tax questions were answered quickly by chat, email and phone.

Spare design. Guided program had design flaw in determining an adult dependent. In its database of answers, some tax information was out of date. No valuation tool for noncash charitable donations.

TurboTax Deluxe plus upgrade

$59.99 federal plus $60 for live expert tax advice; $39.99 for each state. Price may change.

Good explanations of tax-law changes and the "why's" and "how's" of tax-prep. User-friendly design. Clear language.

In the program's database of answers (AnswerXchange), some tax information was outdated. App navigation isn't always intuitive.

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