Kiplinger’s Best Values in Tax Software, 2021

We ranked the most popular tax-prep packages to help you find the ones that provide the best experience at the lowest cost.

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If the COVID-19 pandemic forced you to move or work remotely, file for unemployment benefits or pick up a side gig to earn extra income, filing your tax return could be more complicated than in the past. The economic stimulus checks sent to millions of taxpayers, which represented advance payments of a 2020 tax credit, also create the potential for confusion.

Preparing your own return instead of hiring a preparer could save you money, but tax software can get expensive in a hurry, even for taxpayers with fairly straightforward returns. And a program that shortchanges your refund—or gets you in trouble with the IRS—is no bargain.

To help you find the program that’s right for you, Kiplinger reviewed the online versions of the most popular programs and ranked them based on cost, ease of use, tax help and more. We used two fictional tax returns: one for a single taxpayer who had income reported on Form W-2 and some freelance income, and a second for a married couple with a young child and a mortgage who itemized deductions. To account for some pandemic-related circumstances that could affect taxpayers, we looked at how the programs handled the economic stimulus payments millions of taxpayers received in 2020 and early 2021, which represented an advance payment of a tax credit on your 2020 tax return. In addition, we gave one of the spouses in our fictional couple unemployment benefits, and we had our single taxpayer move from Maryland to his parents’ home in Ohio to determine how the programs accounted for multiple state filings. (For more on your tax obligations if you moved last year, see There's Still Time to Save on 2020 Taxes.)

Prices quoted here are as of January 14. Many tax-software providers engage in surge pricing, which means the cost could rise as the tax-filing deadline approaches.

When to hire a pro

Although tax software is designed to handle a multitude of situations, sometimes the wiser course is to outsource the job to a tax professional. When to consider getting help:

You’re self-employed or own a business. Taxpayers who work for themselves are eligible for a long list of deductions that do-it-yourselfers might overlook. They’re also subject to more scrutiny by the IRS.

You own rental property. The rules governing tax treatment of rental property are complex, and this is another area that tends to attract IRS attention — particularly if you report large rental losses.

You need to file more than one state tax return. A tax preparer can help you comply with tax rules if you lived in more than one jurisdiction last year.

Check the credentials of anyone you hire. Certified public accountants are licensed by state boards of accountancy, studied accounting at a college or university, and have passed a rigorous exam. You can get a list of local certified public accountants from your state’s CPA society.

Enrolled agents must pass a rigorous test and meet annual continuing-education requirements, and are licensed to appear before the IRS. To locate an enrolled agent in your area, go to naea.org (opens in new tab).

Who can file for free?

Even a taxpayer with modest income could end up spending more than $100 on tax software, particularly if he or she had freelance income, lived in more than one state or did something as mundane as contributing to a health savings account. So before you sign up for a program, see whether you’re eligible to prepare and file your federal tax return — and possibly your state tax return, too—for free.

If you had adjusted gross income of $72,000 or less in 2020, you can prepare and e-file your federal tax return through IRS Free File, even if your return is complex. Some tax-preparation companies that participate in IRS Free File include a free state tax return; others will charge you for that. This year, there are nine Free File participants. Each participant is permitted to impose its own criteria. The IRS provides a tool that will help you find a program you’re eligible to use.

Be careful: Some tax software providers use search terms such as “free file” to persuade customers to sign up for programs that end up costing them money. To avoid confusion, go straight to the source: I (opens in new tab)RS Free File.

If you don’t qualify for IRS Free File but have a fairly straightforward return, consider Free File Fillable Forms. This program allows you to fill out your tax return electronically and either e-file it or print it and mail it in. The program will do the math but doesn’t offer guidance or advice, and it doesn’t include a state tax return.

Our methodology

We ranked the programs on cost, navigation (ease of use), the availability of tax help and the number of state returns included in the base price. We deducted points if more-expensive upgrades were needed. For each tax program on our list, we applied our criteria to two fictional tax returns. One of our returns was for a single taxpayer who rents an apartment, received one W-2 form, earned $5,000 in freelance income, has a student loan and has no dependents. In addition, he moved from Maryland to his parents’ home in Ohio. The other return was for a married couple who own a home, have a young child, received investment income, donated to charity and contributed to a health savings account. They both received a W-2 form for earned income and one spouse collected unemployment benefits. They both contributed to IRAs and 401(k) plans.

Rivan V. Stinson
Staff Writer, Kiplinger's Personal Finance

Rivan joined Kiplinger on Leap Day 2016 as a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. She's now a staff writer for the magazine and helps produce content for Kiplinger.com. A Michigan native, she graduated from the University of Michigan in 2014 and from there freelanced as a local copy editor and proofreader, and served as a research assistant to a local Detroit journalist. Her work has been featured in the Ann Arbor Observer and Sage Business Researcher.