TaxAct Review

TaxAct Free Edition is more flexible than competing products. It supports investment, rental, and self-employment income, for example. Paid phone support detracts from its appeal, but a wealth of free features and low prices for e-filing and upgrades make this company a category standout.

TaxAct Free File Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $52,000 or less, and
  • 18-58 years old
  • Supports all common forms
  • Free state e-file in AR, AZ, DC, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, ND, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, and WV

TaxAct Free Edition
  • No income or age requirements
  • Supports all common forms

TaxAct is rapidly gaining popularity as an affordable option for do-it-yourself tax filers. In a TaxAct review, a tax specialist writing for notes that the online software provides plenty of guidance, no matter which version you use. PC Mag gives this year's Deluxe edition the Editors' Choice award, largely because the company handles more than the usual array of forms and schedules, and does so at more competitive prices, than its rivals. Although the graphics aren't as spiffy as other products, some reviewers find TaxAct easy to navigate.

In other quarters, support for TaxAct is more restrained. The Motley Fool says it's a solid choice for straightforward returns, but having to pay for telephone support is a downer. Product recommendation site The Wirecutter notes that if you don't buy the $19.99 Deluxe edition, you'll be confronted with plenty of pop-ups prompting you to upgrade. Some user reviews at Consumer Affairs gripe about a circuitous and cumbersome input process and indifferent customer support. Others warn about alleged system errors that created nerve-wracking or costly problems with the IRS.

The Free Edition includes federal e-filing at no cost and charges $14.99* to electronically file a state return. It can handle itemized deductions, investment gains and losses, and dividend income. This free platform also can be used by business owners and landlords. Similar offerings from major competitors cost as much as $80.

TaxAct's streamlined format minimizes data entry by pre-filling information entered in previous sections and transferring data from federal to state returns. Users can import last year's returns prepared with TaxAct, TurboTax, or H&R Block At Home (importation of a W-2 and investment information from select sources is available only with an upgrade; prices start at $12.99). TaxAct is one of the only tax prep software providers that offers a FAFSA (free application for federal student aid) worksheet at no charge. Note that tax help and technical support is available to all users via email, but phone support is offered to paying customers and requires a $7.99 add-on or upgrade to the Deluxe Edition ($12.99).

The Free File edition available through the IRS has restricted eligibility and no added value in terms of features but does offer free e-filing for residents of 20 states and the District of Columbia. Both versions include audit assistance, in the form of tax professionals who can help explain common IRS notices and the audit process. If you want someone to represent you during an audit, you'll need Audit Defense ($39.95).

Refunds can be collected through direct deposit or allocated toward the purchase of U.S. savings bonds in increments of $50. TaxAct also offers a Visa debit card, which isn't such a good deal; it carries a $10 initiation fee and $5.95 monthly maintenance fee.

For taxpayers with multistate returns and more than the simplest tax situations, TaxAct is a top choice. There's value to be had in free access to the common tax forms, even at the cost of a state e-file and phone support if necessary.

*Prices subject to change.

Where to buy

H&R Block Review

Experts commend the interview-style process, information sections, and robust customer support. Although state returns can be expensive, users who meet the age and income requirements can access the Free File version and complete their returns for free in many states ($14.99 in others).

H&R Block Free File Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $53,500 or less, and
  • 53 or younger, or
  • Eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Supports all common forms
  • Free state e-filing in AR, AZ, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, ND, NC, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, and DC

H&R Block Free Edition
  • No income or age requirements
  • Supports itemized deductions, education credits, dependents

Long respected as a haven for taxpayers seeking low-cost professional tax preparation assistance, H&R Block offers a comprehensive selection of online tax prep software. H&R Block reviews generally affirm the company's status as a smart option. Personal finance blog The Simple Dollar says the person-to-person support is a major, and valued, differentiator. Posted comments suggest that H&R Block has refined the software such that it easily walks users through the tax filing process, although product recommendation site The Wirecutter considers the amount of text on each page overwhelming.

The Free and Free File editions of H&R Block's tax software come with support and features that warrant praise. For starters, they include free chat and phone support with tax experts (although wait times may increase as April 15 approaches); most other tax prep software providers charge extra for phone support, if it's even an option. Tech support, on the other hand, is included only with paid editions. All products are backed by in-person audit support as well as guarantees that the calculations are accurate (assuming the input is), with a "maximum refund guarantee" thrown in.

H&R Block Free Edition comes with free federal e-file, but users pay $27.99* to prepare and electronically file a state tax return. Users can import W-2s but not returns from previous years; if you want that time saver you must upgrade to a paid version. The free online version supports itemized deductions, dividends and interest income, and a range of other common forms and schedules, but taxpayers with business or rental income and other more complex situations will be directed to the paid software. Prices start at $19.99 plus $36.99 for each state return filed.

The Free File edition can handle additional complexity but is available only to those who meet the requirements, including adjusted gross income of $53,500 or less. The inclusion of state e-filing at no cost in 21 states and the District of Columbia is a welcome feature. The cost in other states is $14.99, still far cheaper than with the regular Free Edition. Users can also import previous H&R Block, TurboTax, and TaxAct returns.

Refunds can be taken in the form of a check, direct deposit, or a prepaid MasterCard. H&R Block also offers a 5 percent bonus (10 percent for paid editions) for each $100 taken in the form of a store e-gift card from a vendor such as Target, Starbucks, Best Buy, or Gap.

H&R Block is a safe choice for taxpayers with simple returns and/or a preference for personal support. For some more complicated situations, the cost of doing business with H&R Block adds up quickly unless you meet the Free File requirements.

*Prices subject to change.

Where to buy

TurboTax Review

The largest player in the industry, TurboTax is consistently rated one of the best in terms of usability. However, prices can skyrocket if you have a complicated tax situation. The Free File edition includes free federal and state filing but has an income limit of $31,000 ($60,000 for active military).

TurboTax All Free/Freedom Edition (Free File) Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $31,000 or less, or
  • $60,000 or less for active military, or
  • Eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Supports all common forms
  • Free state e-filing

TurboTax Federal Free Edition Requirements
  • Taxable income of $100,000 or less
  • Must file 1040A or 1040EZ
  • Must take standard deduction

TurboTax is the leader in the tax prep software industry, and for good reason. Its online products score high in nearly every category, and it's unusual to find an expert review that doesn't place TurboTax first in terms of quality. PC Mag commends the user interface, navigation, and top-level support but dings the cost of TurboTax Deluxe. Personal finance blog The Simple Dollar considers TurboTax products to be the most intuitive and reliable, an assessment generally shared by The Wirecutter, whose TurboTax review goes on to say that the interview-like format is akin to working with a paid tax preparer.

There are several editions of TurboTax, but the underlying software and features are the same. We focused on the two least expensive options: Free File and the Federal Free Edition.

The Federal Free Edition, open to anyone with taxable income less than $100,000, includes free federal e-filing and is backed with a 100 percent accuracy guarantee. Audit support, which provides access to a tax professional who can answer questions and tell you how to prepare and what to expect, is free. Audit Defense (an extra $39.99) provides an audit representative, but some reviews indicate it may not be worth it. Users who have tax or technical questions can turn to the online guides or chat support; a paid upgrade is required to speak with a tax professional on the phone. To use this free version, your return must be simple -- i.e., you will file a 1040A or 1040EZ. There is no opportunity to include itemized deductions or miscellaneous income. E-filing a state tax return cost $27.99 at the time of writing; up until Feb. 16, it was free (and the software was marketed as Absolute Zero).

The Free File version (alternately called TurboTax All Free and TurboTax Freedom Edition) is an option for households with adjusted gross income up to $31,000 or eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit. This tax prep package supports more complex tax situations, includes free state e-filing, and comes with the guarantees and support included in other versions. The strict requirements, however, limit its usability.

We read many user reviews that groan about filling out all the templates with the expectation that filing through the Federal Free Edition will be free, only to discover that extra charges apply. Of course, after doing all the work it's tempting to just pay and be done with it. A Turbo Tax review at Amazon from several years ago sums up users' dilemma: The product is excellent, but the pricing structure is suspect. Indeed, users have railed against TurboTax Deluxe (starting at $34.99, plus $36.99 for a state e-file*). Previously this package let filers include capital gains and other tax schedules, but that's no longer the case. To calm the waters, parent company Intuit has offered a $25 credit to some users who were caught off guard by the change.

While TurboTax isn't the cheapest tax software around, reviewers note that it sure beats paying a tax professional. But if your situation is a bit more complex, and you don't meet the Free File requirements, try a competitive product that supports more tax schedules and has a lower fee for state filing. Even if you live in a state without personal income tax, there are better, less expensive tax software products.

*Prices subject to change.

Where to buy

FreeTaxUSA Review

From $12.95 Good

This bare-bones software is one of the cheapest options, yet one of the few that offers free federal filing for taxpayers with small-business income, investments, and/or dependents, whether or not they qualify for Free File. There's no phone or chat support; all correspondence is done via email.

FreeTaxUSA IRS Free File Edition Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $60,000 or less, and
  • 17-75 years old
  • Supports all common forms
  • Not available to residents of AK, FL, NV, NH, SD, TN, TX, WA, and WY

FreeTaxUSA Free Edition
  • No income or age requirement
  • Supports all common forms

What stands out with this free online tax prep software is its ability to handle a variety of tax situations, including children, investments, and freelance/small business income. FreeTaxUSA even supports part-year and nonresident returns for taxpayers who moved during 2014. These features mean big savings when compared with other tax software packages, which charge well into the double digits for similar software and electronic filing.

The user-friendly format also garners positive reviews for FreeTaxUSA, and there seem to be quite a number of repeat customers. Review site The Wirecutter raised the provider's ranking this year, noting that using the software is straightforward and quick. It doesn't frequently prompt users to pay for additional features, as some competitors do. At SiteJabber, past and current users commend the simplicity and the ability to import data from previous returns prepared with FreeTaxUSA.

Moreover, the price is right, asserts NextAdvisor, an independent consumer information site, especially given the free software's applicability to various tax situations without an upcharge. On the other hand, this FreeTaxUSA review grouses about having to pay $5.95 for the Deluxe Edition in order to receive audit assistance. FreeTaxUSA representatives and the FreeTaxUSA Audit Center answer specific questions, help write responses to the IRS, explain options for settling debt, and generally guide users through the process.

The free software is pretty basic, and if you need a lot of guidance while filing, other tax prep software may be preferable. That's not to say there isn't any help along the way. The interface presents an interview-style experience, and email support is free; priority is given to paid users. Taxpayers report that customer service generally responds quickly, although not always with helpful answers. The package features a refund/owe meter, deduction finders, and an accuracy guarantee (as long as you input the data correctly). Another bonus for some tax filers: no charge to print the finished return, so you can have a paper copy for your records and/or mail it in instead of filing online. You also can choose to have the forms professionally printed and shipped to you ($5.95) or printed and bound ($12.95).

State e-filing with the Free Edition costs $12.95* and federal filing is, of course, free. The Free File edition of FreeTaxUSA imposes age, income, and residency requirements and doesn't allow users to import previous returns. If you use the Free File edition link but don't qualify, you'll be charged $9.95 to file your federal return.

FreeTaxUSA isn't the best option for simple returns, and the $5.95 upgrade for audit assistance is irksome. Still, the company had the lowest state e-filing fees at the time of writing (although no option to file for free in select states). The software is available at no cost no matter how complicated the return, while other preparers often charge more once business income or rental property is added in.

*Prices subject to change.

Where to buy

TaxSlayer Review

Reviews suggest TaxSlayer hasn't kept up with the competition in recent years. The Free Basic edition includes only email tech support (no tax-related support) and charges a hefty sum for state filing. The Free File version is limited to taxpayers with adjusted gross income of no more than $33,000.

TaxSlayer Free File Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $33,000 or less, or
  • $60,000 or less for active military
  • Supports all common forms
  • Free state e-filing in AR, AZ, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, ND, NC, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, and DC

TaxSlayer Free Basic
  • No income or age requirement
  • Supports all common forms

TaxSlayer had been gaining favor with taxpayers until recently, according to reviews, when the tax prep software became a little more expensive and a little less useful. The price to e-file a state return is now $23.90* for the first state, a 33 percent increase over last year, and $14.95 for additional states; federal e-filing is still free.

In TaxSlayer reviews, users contend that the online software is easy to navigate, and guarantees of a maximum refund and 100 percent accuracy (of the calculations) put their minds at ease. Other TaxSlayer reviews praise the way the software helps preparers but isn't overbearing with assistance. At Consumer Affairs, though, users complain about weak customer support, system errors, and returns that were rejected by tax authorities due to incomplete or erroneous data.

PC Mag asserts that the user interface is dated, the error-check process is awkward, and overall the software doesn't seem ready for prime time. Product recommendation site The Wirecutter concludes that TaxSlayer's interface and guidance don't measure up to FreeTaxUSA or TurboTax.

Phone and email support is included with TaxSlayer Free Basic, but read the fine print carefully: It covers technical matters only; no answers to tax questions. An upgrade to TaxSlayer Premium ($34.95) includes priority support and access to a tax professional, a service that costs $22 for users of the Free Basic edition.

The Free File version, although limited by a low adjusted gross income ceiling of $33,000, is a potentially good option because it can handle all common tax forms and includes free e-filing in 21 states plus the District of Columbia. Taypayers in the remaining states pay just $12.95. A Free File edition for active military accepts adjusted gross income up to $60,000. Users of Free File can import a previous TaxSlayer return to expedite the filing process. Non-Free File users must use a paid edition for this feature.

TaxSlayer isn't without merit, but unless you qualify for Free File, the steep prices for state filing and complicated returns are a turn-off. Reports about returns being rejected are also troublesome.

*Prices subject to change.

Where to buy Review

From $19.95 Think Twice

This lesser-known option appeals with a flat rate for unlimited state returns. However, customer support is limited and reviews suggest the guidance is oversimplified. The standard free software supports only simple returns and the Free File Edition has an income limit of $33,000. Free File Edition Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $33,000 or less
  • Supports all common forms Federal Edition Requirements
  • Adjusted gross income of $100,000 or less, and
  • 65 or younger, and
  • No children or dependents
  • Must take standard deduction

Reviews indicate that may be appropriate for specific circumstances, but it's not the best choice if you're looking for a bargain.'s resident U.S. tax expert likes that the company's Free File Edition provides free PDF files of the federal and state tax forms, so you can print and mail the return if you prefer not to e-file. He also considers the support center helpful and the navigation simple to follow, although it wasn't obvious where to report rental income.

Another review commends the flat fee ($19.95) for e-filing as many state returns as needed but laments the lack of customer support, noting that there isn't even a link to a "contact us" page on the website. Although the parent company, Drake Software, has an A- rating with the Better Business Bureau, one customer complaint from 2014 raises concern. alleged the customer's return was filed with the IRS, but the IRS had no record of it. Another complaint on the BBB website asserts that the interview questions designed to elicit relevant tax information were oversimplified, which resulted in an incorrect refund calculation.

The Free File version of is available only to households with less than $33,000 in adjusted gross income in 2014. The Free Edition is designed for taxpayers with simple tax circumstances. If you have children or dependents, make more than $100,000 in taxable income, or are over 65, this tool is not for you; paid versions start at $19.95. Moreover, the fee for e-filing a state return is $19.95, which is higher than most of the competition, and there's no audit assistance or guaranteed accuracy. Users also cannot import previous returns. The one bright spot is that the state fee covers filing in as many states as needed (e.g., if you worked in more than one state or moved during 2014); most other providers charge for each state return. There is no fee to print a copy of your return.

Although the state filing fee covers more than one return, it's on the high side, and the complaints and limitations of the software argue against this product.

Where to buy

Buying Guide

Instead of paying a tax professional hundreds of dollars to prepare your income tax return, try the do-it-yourself approach with free tax software available online. There are often limitations associated with these free programs, such as income, age, and residency requirements, but most tax filers meet the criteria. We zeroed in on four recommended providers that can help eligible taxpayers prepare and e-file relatively straightforward federal returns for free and state returns for less than $20.

Free Online Tax Prep Guide

The "free" in "free tax software" refers to the fact that there's no cost to use the software and file a federal return electronically. A state tax return often carries an extra fee, although some products also support free electronic filing of state returns.

The software providers featured here are among 14 companies dubbed the Free File Alliance. They have partnered with the Internal Revenue Service to offer free federal tax preparation for taxpayers with 2014 adjusted gross income up to $60,000. The IRS Free File site serves as a gateway to participating providers and lists each company's eligibility requirements, which may be more restrictive than the income ceiling set by the federal government. By agreement with the IRS, Free File providers must make available all the commonly used tax forms and schedules, including itemized deductions, business gains or losses, capital gains or losses, childcare expenses, and forms related to the Affordable Care Act.

Taxpayers can skirt the restrictions by accessing similar free tax software directly through the company websites. There, however, users are often subject to continual upselling, and an upgrade to paid software may prove necessary for taxpayers with more complex returns. TaxAct, one of our top picks, stands out for accommodating relatively complicated returns, not only with the Free File edition accessible through the IRS but also with the free software available on its website, which has no income or age requirements. Both versions support the full array of e-file forms and schedules.

Market leaders TurboTax and H&R Block exceed our price range with state filing fees of $27.99 for users of their federal free editions (as of Feb. 24). As members of the Free File Alliance, though, they offer discounted or even free filing to eligible residents of all, or some, states. That means qualifying consumers who access the free software through the IRS website can use one of the big players' products completely free. H&R Block is much less restrictive than TurboTax, allowing taxpayers up to age 53 with adjusted gross income up to $53,500, and anyone eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, to use the Free File program. TurboTax requires adjusted gross income of $31,000 or less ($60,000 for active military) or eligibility for the EITC.

FreeTaxUSA rounds out our recommendations. It offers broad functionality and a low state filing fee regardless whether taxpayers use the Free File program or the free edition on the provider's website. TaxSlayer and levy relatively high state filing charges and provide limited customer support. See our comparison chart for detailed pricing and eligibility requirements, and click on the company names above for in-depth reviews of each provider.

Of course, no matter which provider you choose, the entire process will proceed more quickly if you've already assembled all the relevant information, including your W-2, any 1099s you may have received, and a copy of last year's tax return. Many of the Free File editions include free extensions in case you can't get your paperwork in order by April 15. But remember that an extension gives you extra time only to file -- not to pay. In order to avoid penalties and interest, you still need to make an estimated payment by the tax-day deadline.

Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table

(from $0)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $52,000 and 18-58 years old
Federal Free Edition Requirements No income or age requirement; supports all common forms
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $0 in AR, AZ, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, ND, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, and DC; $14.99 elsewhere
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $14.99
Support Options Email and audit support; $7.99 for unlimited phone support
(from $0)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $53,500 and age 53 or younger, or eligible for Earned Income Tax Credit
Federal Free Edition Requirements No income or age requirement; supports many common forms
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $0 in AR, AZ, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, ND, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, and DC; $14.99 elsewhere
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $27.99
Support Options In-person audit support, phone support, online forum and chat; technical support with paid editions
(from $0)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $31,000 ($60,000 for active military) or eligible for Earned Income Tax Credit
Federal Free Edition Requirements Taxable income of $100,000 or less; must file 1040A or 1040EZ and take standard deduction
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $0
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $27.99
Support Options Audit support, online forum and chat; phone support with paid editions
(from $12.95)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $60,000 and 17-75 years old (not available to residents of AK, FL, NV, NH, SD, TN, TX, WA, and WY)
Federal Free Edition Requirements No income or age requirement; supports all common forms
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $12.95
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $12.95
Support Options Email only; $5.95 for priority responses and audit support
(from $19.95)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $33,000
Federal Free Edition Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $100,000 and age 65 or younger; no children or dependents; must take standard deduction
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $19.95
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $19.95
Support Options Email only
(from $0)
IRS Free File Requirements Adjusted gross income up to $33,000 ($60,000 for active military)
Federal Free Edition Requirements No income or age requirement; supports all common forms
State E-Filing Through IRS Free File $0 in AR, AZ, GA, IA, ID, IN, KY, MI, MN, MO, MS, NC, ND, OK, OR, PA, RI, SC, VA, VT, WV, and DC; $12.95 elsewhere
State E-Filing With Federal Free Edition $23.90
Support Options Email; phone tech support only

What We Looked For

Low State-Filing Fees.

If you're not lucky enough to live in one of the nine states that doesn't levy a tax on income, make sure you understand the cost structure for filing state taxes -- you don't want to be surprised by fees after inputting all the data. In most circumstances, state filing is not free, although there is a State Free File program with more than 20 participating states and the District of Columbia. To file state taxes for free, you must reside in one of those states, be eligible for federal Free File, and use Free File software from a company that participates in both programs, such as TaxAct or H&R Block. Otherwise, even providers that offer free federal tax filing generally assess charges ranging from $12.95, with FreeTaxUSA, to $27.99, with the free (non-Free File) editions from TurboTax and H&R Block. Users who meet the federal Free File requirements can often save on state e-filing by accessing the software through the IRS; charges range from $12.95 to $19.95.

Wide Range of Supported Forms.

Consumers who review tax software often complain about "hidden" fees. This usually occurs because the software lets you start a return and fill in all the information without paying, so users may get to the end before realizing there is a charge to file a state return or a required upgrade for a more complex tax scenario.

While free tax software meets the needs of many filers, companies make their money on upgrades -- and you'll get lots of prompts to make that choice (especially if you don't use a Free File edition). The upside of a paid upgrade is access to more features and guidance. Many companies simply deduct the cost of the software from your refund.

If you are self-employed or own a small business, earn rental income, got married or had a child, made or lost money trading stocks, bought or sold a home, or dealt with other complicating factors last year and are not eligible for Free File, some providers may give you no choice but to upgrade to more expensive tax preparation software (or turn to a tax professional). TurboTax Federal Free Edition, for example, accommodates only 1040A and 1040EZ filings and requires users to take the standard deduction ($6,200 for a single person for the 2014 tax year and $12,400 for a couple filing jointly). On the other hand, TaxAct Free Edition supports the same set of forms required in Free File software, with no income or age restrictions.

Importation of Tax Documents and Past Returns.

If you prepare your returns using online tax software, you'll save a lot of time and energy if you can import tax forms, last year's return, and/or data from financial management software. Some free tax prep packages (e.g., FreeTaxUSA) will, at minimum, let you import your return from last year if you used the same program, or auto-fill current templates based on saved information from previous years. The TaxAct Free Edition allows for importing of a previous year's return even if it was filed with TurboTax or H&R Block. Free File editions vary; some don't allow importing when their non-Free File counterparts do (TaxAct), while others (TaxSlayer and H&R Block) support importing that's usually available only with a paid version. For the simplest returns there isn't much information to enter, so document importation isn't always included in the free editions.

Refund/Owe Meters.

All the best free online tax software providers update the size of your refund or the amount owed with an onscreen meter of some sort as you complete each section. In addition to providing the feel-good motivation of seeing your potential refund rise (or the panic as the amount due mounts), these tickers can help you decide which tax software provider to use. Because each company's proprietary software has its quirks, the refund (or taxes due) may vary slightly. Most providers don't require any upfront payment, so you can try out a product or two before making any financial commitments. Be wary of a large discrepancy, however; it may indicate that one of the providers isn't handling your situation properly (or that you mistakenly entered different information). You may want to dig a little deeper before hitting "submit" and risking an audit.

Error Checks and Guaranteed Accuracy.

All of the better online tax software includes an error check feature that monitors your work as you go along and alerts you to potential mistakes. The downside to these error checks is they can give you a false sense of confidence. If the software misses a mistake and you notice it only after you've filed, you'll have to submit an amended return and often pay a fee. If all the data you've entered is accurate, most software companies -- including all those we researched but for -- offer a guarantee that the calculations are correct.

Help and Customer Support.

Although no one should expect to receive hours of assistance while using free software of any kind, there should be at least basic help with tax-related questions and, ideally, technical support for the software. Email correspondence is by far the most common form of support. TurboTax and H&R Block also feature live chat and forums, where taxpayers ask and answer questions (and tax professionals chime in). Tax guidance and/or technical support over the phone often costs extra or is available only with paid editions. H&R Block stands out for offering free tax advice by phone, although free tech support calls for an upgrade.

H&R Block also offers in-person audit support at no charge to all online filers. Free audit assistance is available by phone with TurboTax and via email from TaxAct; both also host online support centers with related information. No matter which provider you choose, this type of assistance is limited to guidance from someone who can help explain the process. Full-service audit defense, including representation by a tax specialist, comes at a cost (which must be paid before you receive a notice from the IRS). Time magazine points out that most requests are fairly straightforward and your money may be better spent on a receipt organizer.

Offline Versions.

To keep costs low, most tax software providers offer free tax software only online. Some people concerned about fraud and hacking of personal information may prefer a downloadable version or a CD so they can store everything offline and submit their returns by mail. TaxAct offers its free edition via download at no charge, or you can order a CD and pay $5.99 for shipping. Generally, though, that's not an option when using free tax software.

What We Ignored

Alternative Refund Options.

Most tax programs let users choose to receive a refund by direct deposit or paper check. Some also offer Visa or MasterCard prepaid cards, gift cards, or U.S. savings bonds. Watch out, though -- sometimes the prepaid cards come with fees. Most users just want to receive their refunds quickly and securely, no matter what the payment method.

Tax Software Reviews

We waded through a lot of tax software reviews from experts and consumers and found that each of the top providers garners its share of partisans and detractors. The annual chore of preparing a tax return is rarely fun, and sometimes it's hard to know whether an online reviewer is really struggling with a particular software package or simply venting about taxes and/or the preparation process. Some complaints reflect lack of understanding about the tax issue at hand. For example, we came upon tax software reviews griping about refunds not yet paid, a situation that's out of the software company's hands. We also read reviews of free tax software (e.g., asserting that a return was filed incorrectly or not at all -- a clear case of a faulty system and a product that should be avoided.

Tax rules and tax software change every year and it's often difficult to tell which version a reviewer is referring to. This is an important distinction, because pricing may change from year to year and sometimes there are new features added or massive improvements in the interface. Although we looked for companies with a strong track record of users returning from one year to the next, what really matters is the version at hand. It's not always possible to find reviews for the current year's edition, however, because few people have filed their returns early and taken the time to post comments. Still, we tried to rely on reviews for the latest editions.

We winnowed the list of free tax software providers based on usability and customer service, in addition to pricing and features.

Interface and Ease of Use.

Most tax software relies on a guided interview format that asks simple questions about your marital status, family, income, expenses, and other circumstances that affect your tax situation. The general idea is to keep the tax-filing process as simple and painless as possible. You should be able to navigate smoothly from section to section, easily figure out what information goes where, input data quickly, and get results that avoid over- or underpayment. Expert reviews at sites such as PC Mag assert that TurboTax software has an especially user-friendly approach.

Customer Service.

Support comes in two forms: tax guidance and technical support. It also comes in several media: email, chat, forums, phone, and in-person. Tax software reviews show a clear preference for phone support, not just online advice. Typically this is a paid upgrade, so H&R Block is notable for offering unlimited tax advice by phone. It's also the only provider in our roundup that includes in-person audit support with its free software. No matter what the type of issue or communication, the support team should be polite and helpful when answering questions. We disqualified free tax software with too many complaints that questions were ignored or engendered rude, one-sentence answers.