- 1 What is Tax Software?
- 2 Tax Software vs Tax Accountant
- 3 Tax Software Buyer’s Guide
- 4 New Laws Came into Force in 2018 through 2025
What is Tax Software?
To make your life easier when complying with the sometimes-onerous tax return standards in the United States, tax preparation software compiles the numerous rules and regulations for federal and state income taxes for you to prepare on your own computer and time.
You can use tax software either online or have it directly installed and run on your computer. Both versions come equipped with prompts, forms, and information to assist individuals and businesses prepare their income taxes. Because of the simplicity and on-demand nature of tax software, many choose this path to file their taxes.
Additionally, for those who file their own taxes using tax software each year, most programs allow you to pull in the previous year’s return and auto-populate information. Further, tax software eliminates the need for taxpayers to prepare their returns on actual forms.
Instead, after inputting your required information, the tax software populates the fields in the necessary forms on your behalf, removing the headache of navigating different forms and schedules.
The tax software helps by taking simple or complex tax situations alike and providing understandable prompts for the user to submit the necessary information. From here, the software compiles the information and completes the tax return for you. At this juncture, you can either send the completed tax returns (federal and state) via mail or digitally through e-file, the IRS’ preferred manner for transmitted your completed tax return.
And the best part? No math! Computers handle the heavy lifting and eliminate the possibility of simple arithmetic errors. This proves immensely useful when it comes to tax time because no one wants to make mistakes and catch the attention of the IRS. Instead, you want to file your federal and state tax returns without headache or controversy.
Tax Software vs Tax Accountant
Tax Software Pros –
- Offers an intuitive, Q&A-based format. Most tax software asks for simple information like your name, address, filing status, and dependent information. It asks you for specific information with detailed instructions of where to look on your W-2, 1099s, or other IRS tax forms. The tax software walks you through your income sources (e.g., earned income, passive income, investment income, etc.) by type and follows with a detailed Q&A about certain expenses which might be tax deductible. The software will ask about common tax deductions in addition to those you might not have known about.
- No hassle with filing. Tax software also helps make filing your return easy. If the software is worth its cost, you should be tasked with inputting your information, reviewing it for errors, and then submitting it to the IRS. You can do this either through printing and mailing it or e-file, the electronic transmission service used by the IRS. Tax software offers this advantage and dramatically reduces the time necessary to receive your refund directly deposited into your bank account.
Tax Software Cons –
- More technical questions require extra help. If you have very complicated taxes to handle, sometimes you need more guidance than what the on-screen prompts provide. In fact, your complex tax situation might require a tax expert’s discerning review to have full capability of advising you beyond the tax software’s programmed abilities.
Tax Accountant Pros –
- CPA or tax professional has the ability to provide tailored advice based on your tax situation. Depending on your needs, you may require more hands-on assistance preparing your taxes. Often, even the most robust tax software programs lack the wherewithal to handle complex tax situations. Or, in the cases when tax software can handle your tax circumstances, you might not have the time to complete your tax return in a timely manner. In this circumstance, it could make sense to consider handing over your tax forms to a professional and have your taxes prepared for you. Some things in life are worth paying a premium for, and peace of mind certainly qualifies.
- If you have a dispute which requires a finer understanding of tax laws. Some situations may present in your personal or professional life where no clear tax regulation or laws exist for which to guide you on how to claim certain positions on your tax return. By having a tax professional handle these circumstances on your behalf would be strongly advised and go well beyond the scope of tax software.
- You have little-to-no-understanding of tax preparation and don’t feel you can handle the task on your own. Stated simply, taxes can be difficult to grasp. There are so many formulas and numbers to know. Which number goes where? Do I have any Section 1231 loss carryovers or MACRS depreciation to claim on my rental property? Don’t worry, you’re not alone in finding these questions difficult to answer. If you don’t feel you can navigate your tax forms and the tax software, it would be advised to seek a certified tax preparer to aide you in preparing and filing your tax return.
- If you are likely to be audited by the IRS. In this case, it is strongly advised to seek the assistance of a paid preparer.
Tax Accountant Cons –
- Expensive. Professional service and advice comes with a price. In many cases, receiving paid tax advice can be costly, especially compared to using tax software. However, if any of the above pros apply, avoiding IRS penalties and fines (or worse) make the cost well worth it.
- You have a simple tax situation. If you have the same tax situation as previous years and no major life changes have occurred in your life, it could be easier (and cheaper) to prepare your own return. Most of the tax software packages include free versions for handling such tax situations. If you only claim the standard deduction and no other complexities exist for your tax situation, paying a tax professional might act as a poor use of your financial resources.
- Time crunch. If you tend to procrastinate when it comes to filing your taxes, it might be hard to find an available tax preparer as the tax filing deadline looms. With tax software, you can prepare them at your own pace and not be dependent on someone else’s availability.
Tax Software Buyer’s Guide
Because so many tax software packages exist as available options, deciding to narrow down some key considerations you should make before settling on one purchase would be advised. The following items are the most common things to look for when deciding which tax software package is best for your needs.
1. Ease of Use
The rationale for using tax software comes down to making the preparation and filing of a tax return less complicated. Therefore, picking an intuitive, easy-to-understand tax software package would make the most sense. If you have filed your taxes before with tax software, you would most likely want to have your previous year’s info automatically populate in this year’s forms. Talk about hitting the “Easy” button.
If you’re considering changing software packages, you will want one capable of integrating smoothly with your old software. Having this cross-functionality would make switching much less painful when it comes time to pull in your old data.
2. Cost of Software
As with most purchases, consumers are very conscious of cost. Why would tax software be any different?
Based on these reviews, you can find packages ranging from free to over $200 for a premium plan if you have a very complicated tax situation requiring multiple forms to be filed with your return and also have need of professional assistance. Depending on your tax circumstances, you should make sure you aren’t overpaying for software you don’t need. Likewise, you shouldn’t skimp if what you need is only available in a higher tier package. In other words, pay for what you need but not what you don’t.
As a means for avoiding the fees posed by most tax software packages, you should make it a point to check if you qualify for filing your federal taxes for free through the IRS’s Free File program. Choosing this route could land you branded tax software from more than 10 tax software providers if your adjusted gross income is below $66,000.
3. Design and Interface
When selecting your tax software, it’s important to use a design and interface which make sense to you. You would want a package which prompts you with questions to make sure you understand what is being done as well as provides understandable explanations of what is happening on your return. Part of this is having a good design where the preparation process flows smoothly and logically. A clear and coherent interface is equally important. Above all, you want this process to be as painless as possible.
4. Service and Support
If you confront issues with your return and don’t know what to do, it is nice to know there is available support to assist you. If your tax situation is simple and you have a decent understanding of what you’re doing, this may not be important. However, if you’re new to filing your taxes and aren’t an experienced filer, have a complicated return with a high likelihood of being audited by the IRS, or in a situation where you need tax assistance, you want to know there is available support from the tax software vendor.
Some tax software, including some on our Top 5 list, offer assistance by tax professionals. This includes the help of licensed CPAs. These tax software hybrid plans can offer you the benefits of tax software, with the available assistance of tax professionals on-demand.
New Laws Came into Force in 2018 through 2025
Many people had anxiety last tax season because they did not know how tax reform changes would impact their tax situation. Prior years had a continuation of the status quo whereas some major changes which impacted how much taxpayers paid throughout the year and thus the amount paid or owed after filing their returns.
Politicians saw the spirit of tax reform as simplifying the tax planning process for individuals. It aimed to do so by dramatically increasing the standard deduction, rationalizing this would reduce the number of people who itemized deductions on their returns. In turn, this would reduce the complexity of filing your taxes.
However, some other provisions of the bill will affect your taxable income and how much you pay Uncle Sam. These items are listed below.
1. Lowered Individual Tax Rates
America has a progressive tax system, which means as you make more income and exceed certain thresholds, the amount of tax paid on an additional dollar of income increases. For example, if you made $25,000 as a single filer in 2019, you would pay 10% on the first $9,700 ($970.00) and 12% on the remaining $15,300 ($25,000 – $9,700) or $1,836. You would not pay 12% on the entire $25,000.
The new tax law changed two things about the individual tax rates in 2018:
- Lower Marginal Tax Rates – The tax law kept the seven existing federal income tax brackets, however, it lowered the tax rate of every bracket save two. This reduces the amount of money you pay on each additional dollar of income by varying amounts.
- Different Taxable Income Ranges – The law also changed the income bracket ranges for tax filers. Meaning, the income ranges applicable to each tax rate either widened or narrowed, depending on the level of income. On the low end, the bottom two brackets remained unchanged, while on the upper end, the highest tax rate (37%) does not kick in until a single taxpayer has earned $510,301 of taxable income as opposed to $426,701 under the old tax brackets.
2. Standard Deductions
As stated above, the standard deduction nearly doubled in 2018. Further, this will simplify many people’s tax returns because they will not have the ability to claim enough deductions to itemize.
3. Personal Exemptions
Tax reform nixed personal exemption when the standard deduction almost doubled. Previously, each person claimed on the tax return received a personal exemption and thus lowered the applicable amount of taxable income. For example, if you were a family of 4, you received 4 exemptions. Under the current tax law, you no longer retain the ability to claim personal exemptions on your tax return.
4. State and Local Taxes
Perhaps one of the biggest areas of tension in the new tax law has been the change to the treatment of state and local taxes, commonly referred to as SALT taxes. Under previous tax law, no limit existed to the amount of SALT taxes eligible for deduction against your taxable income. In effect, this mollified the cost of living in areas with high costs of living and higher regional tax burdens. Expensive real estate with proportionate property and real estate taxes levied against their inflated values make for a difficult pill to swallow if you can only deduct up to $10,000 per year against your federal taxable income.
Many taxpayers in high cost of living areas have been adversely impacted by this change in the tax law and cut into any tax savings they might hope to receive in other areas.
5. Mortgage Interest Deduction
One of the most important itemized tax deductions taxpayers have used in the past was the mortgage interest deduction. While the new tax law did not eliminate this deduction, it did reduce the generosity.
Previous to tax reform, taxpayers could deduct the interest resulting from the first $1,000,000 of your mortgage as well as the interest associated with the first $100,000 of a home equity loan (assuming the funds are used for qualifying home improvements).
Tax reform reduced these thresholds by now only allowing the interest expense associated with the first $750,000 for taxpayers who are married and file jointly, and $375,000 for single taxpayers. In other words, instead of $1,100,000 in principal counting as eligible, a total cap of $750,000 now applies.
Of note, this limit only applies to new loans originated after 2017. Pre-existing mortgages receive grandfathered treatment and continue as the same under the old limits.