Every year for the past nine, at this time of year, we've avoided writing about programs for figuring personal income taxes.
We kept testing programs. We saw our colleagues spill a lot of ink singing praises of software we rejected out of hand. But not one program convinced us that you couldn't get in trouble using it.Maybe the view from our other hat honed our standards. For almost a decade, we've also tested and reported on tax preparation programs for professional CPAs. We know that if you use anything less reliable than they use, you can end up in very hot water.
This year, we tested six programs. Andrew Tobias TaxCut, Sylvia Porter's RapidTax by DacEasy, SwifTax and Personal Tax Preparer run only on IBM compatibles. MacInTax and TurboTax run on both IBM and Macintosh computers.
We did our taxes plus some very complicated returns for mythical John Q. Public and I. Hate Taxes. We ran off reams of forms on an Epson-compatible dot matrix printer and a Hewlett-Packard LaserJet compatible. We compared claims to reality and tested performance of them all. The news is, a few finally meet our standards.
(For your free copy of our two-page comparison chart, send a stamped self-addressed envelope to PK TAX, 3006 Gregory, Madison WI 53711.) First, here's what you shouldn't expect from the software.
Tax advice. The programs do all have "help" screens - but they stick to what you can read in free IRS publication 17. If you need help with tax strategy or with how a statute applies to you, you still have to hire a CPA.
Instant refunds. All the programs say they can do electronic filing. But the IRS won't take a tax return from you over phone wires or on a floppy disk. The most you can do with your electronic return is send or give it to a service bureau. For $20 or so, they submit it electronically.
Even with electronic filing, the IRS wants some paperwork by mail: your W-2 income reports, a signed transmittal form, and a copy of one of your checks so the IRS knows how to deposit your refund directly into your bank account. In short, going the electronic route may get you a refund 10 days sooner. For about $15 extra, some services advance you the amount of your refund.
IRS look-alikes. Readers of our newsletter CPA Micro Report tell us that professional-looking forms help get returns through faster and with less chance of audit. So we don't treat appearances lightly.
The Tobias program has a $99 add-on, FancyPrint, that prints professional-looking forms. (A $12 version prints 15 of the most used forms.) But even on a laser printer, few of the others print all the big type, bold type, shadings and other features of official IRS forms. (SWIFTAX, TurboTax and MacIn-Tax print the best-looking forms on almost any dot matrix or laser printer.) The IRS does accept alternative forms these days, and all the forms can meet their minimum standards. But if your printer doesn't underline, you must hand-draw a couple dozen lines to make the forms IRS-OK.
State tax forms. All but Personal Tax Preparer have companion state tax programs, but none cover all the states. TurboTax for IBM does 44, Porter 38.
Programs for older or minimal computers. All the IBM-compatible programs require at least 512K RAM. The Mac programs are for Mac Plus and up. All but Personal Tax Preparer and SwifTax really need a hard-disk machine.
All the programs have the same basic format. They ask a bunch of questions, select the forms you need and, once you fill in everything, print them all out. Here are our capsule reviews.
Personal Tax Preparer can fill in the most forms and schedules, 66 out of 71. It's quick and easy. It can import data from many home accounting programs, avoiding retyping and boosting accuracy.
But it turns out ugly forms, and it has some rough edges. For example, if you accidentally hit QUIT while printing, you have to print over from the beginning. It's only for extremely careful workers. For them it gets a B.
SwifTax prints beautiful forms but has only 46 of the 71. Unlike the other programs, it checks data for inconsistency only if you command it to. (We'd make that mandatory.) It's dumb, too. Even after you check that you're SINGLE, it asks if you're MARRIED FILING SEPARATELY. It rates a C and only for careful workers who don't need special forms.
Andrew Tobias TaxCut handles 51 of 71 forms, but it prints poorly without the add-on. The program itself works well and keeps even slovens out of trouble. It gets a B - an A with the pretty printer, although then it's most expensive by far.
Sylvia Porter's RapidTax comes from the folks who make DacEasy. Nonetheless, some abbreviations in the entry screens stumped even accounting gurus. One of its questions is, "Do you need to make estimated tax payments for 1991?" That's something the other programs figure out from your other answers. We give Porter a D.
MacInTax's version for IBM com-patibles is almost identical to the Mac version. But it requires Windows 3.0 and at least 2M RAM.
The program's forms and input screens are gorgeous, maybe because the maker also sells professional tax software. But there are serious faults. For instance, the program doesn't automatically make some key calculations of credits and taxes owed. But you find that out only if you read the manual through to Appendix E.
That down-rates MacInTax to C.
TurboTax is best by far. It needed to ask far fewer questions than most other programs before selecting the forms and schedules we needed. It checks for data consistency. It suggests what you should do next instead of making you inexpertly decide. Its forms print attractively even on dot matrix printers. We give it A.
TurboTax has two other things going for it, too. For one, the company also makes programs for professional tax preparers. If you get in over your head doing your own forms, you can phone for the name of a nearby TurboTax pro.
Second, the company is solid. They'll be around awhile. That's important, since the makers charge about half price for each year's program updates.