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TaxAct Deluxe+ 2020 (Tax Year 2019) - Review 2020


TaxAct Deluxe+ has roots that go back to the 1990s. It's a reliable, thorough online tax website with a large potential audience of taxpayers, primarily W-2 earners who want to itemize. Since we last reviewed it, the company has retired one version, changed some prices, enhanced its ability to find tax breaks, and made improvements to the user experience. Despite these enhancements, its rating remains the same. TurboTax Deluxe is our Editors' Choice for the 2019 tax year because it's superior to the competition in many areas, most notably for its taxpayer assistance options and exceptional user experience.

TaxAct Pricing and Options

TaxAct broke the price barrier when it introduced completely free online personal tax preparation and e-filing (both federal and state) several years ago. It no longer makes that offer. It doesn't, for example, support schedules A-F these days. Its free product does cover more topics than it did for the 2018 tax year, though, including dependent and student support. State returns are still free, too. Credit Karma Tax is now the only service that supports all the major forms and schedules (both federal and state) for free. Of course, you get what you pay for, and what you're not paying for (and don't get) with Credit Karma Tax is a deep and thorough help system.

TaxAct's product lineup has changed a bit, but not as drastically as last year. Basic+ has been discontinued Some of its content has been moved into the free version, which supports W-2 income (with expanded import capabilities), dependents, college expenses, and retirement income. This is an impressive list, but FreeTaxUSA supports all major forms and schedule for free, with only a $12.95 charge for state returns.

The next step up from Free is now TaxAct Deluxe+, which I tested this year (still $29.95 at this writing for federal filing), which is designed for itemizers and W-2 earners. If you have to report on investments or rental property, you'll have to pay $10 more (federal) for Premier+, which also includes prioritized support. State returns are $39.95. The top-of-the-line service and the only one to offer Schedules C and F is Self-Employed+; federal returns at this level cost quite a bit more this year ($74.95), and their state returns are $49.95. These prices fall roughly in the middle of the tax website spectrum, whereas TaxAct used to be one of the least expensive options.

TaxAct no longer offers what it used to call the Price Lock Guarantee. No matter when you filed in the past, TaxAct would charge you the price the product was when you started your return. Tax websites tend to get more expensive the closer you get to the filing deadline, and competitors generally charge you whatever the rate is at the time you file. This is a disappointing development, as this was one of the things that set TaxAct apart.

TaxAct Medical

TaxAct's Wizard Wizardry

TaxAct, like its competitors, is an online version of all those paper documents you would otherwise need to assemble to do your tax preparation. If you have a complicated financial life and have ever tried to complete your return on paper, you know how frustrating and time-consuming it is to keep flipping back and forth between forms and schedules, doing all your calculations, and transferring the correct numbers to your 1040.

TaxAct makes this grueling process more organized and manageable. Like a human being in a tax preparer's office would do, it interviews you to get all the information needed to complete your return, taking you through a lengthy step-by-step wizard. All you must do is answer the questions on each page before you advance to the next one. Sometimes you have to fill in a number or a few words, whereas other pages ask you to select responses from lists of options.

As you enter information, TaxAct does the necessary calculations and puts your answers onto the appropriate lines on the right forms or schedules. At almost every step of the way, it offers support of one kind or another. After you visit every topic applicable to your situation, TaxAct goes through your return and alerts you to potential problems before allowing you to e-file or print out paper returns to mail. You aren't asked to pay until this point, as is typical with these services.

Early Tax Info

Your first steps in getting started are to create a username and password, enter a code sent by text or email, and choose security questions and answers (subsequent sign-ins are easier than they used to be). The service also asks if you want to import your tax data from last year. TaxAct Deluxe+ can bring in that information if you have a PDF file of your 2018 return that was prepared by another service. This can save you a lot of time and improve the accuracy of your return, too—assuming your data was correct last year. Of course, this is a simple automated process if you used TaxAct Deluxe+ last year.

If you're starting from scratch, TaxAct Deluxe+ has to get some basic information about you up front, such as names and addresses, birth dates, and Social Security numbers. Then, it's on to questions about dependents and your filing status. It does all of this in a fairly straightforward, serious way. Other services, such as TurboTax and (to a lesser extent) H&R Block, try to be a little friendlier and even folksier here and throughout the interview process. This doesn't affect the actual tax preparation, but some may find a chummier interview can make what can be a tedious experience a bit more pleasant.

Getting Around

Most personal tax preparation websites use similar navigation tools. In TaxAct Deluxe+, the left vertical navigation tool is divided into the site's main sections, including Basic Info, Federal, and Review. When you click on one of those headings, the toolbar changes to reflect the subsections found there. So, for example, you'll see tabs for Income, Deductions, Credits, Taxes, Miscellaneous, and Summary under Federal—the same way it was set up last year. Below that are links to state, review, and filing tools, as well as a few housekeeping screens.

The easiest—and recommended—way to progress through TaxAct Deluxe+ is sequentially. Just keep completing screens and using the navigation buttons. I got tangled up more than once when I tried to work out of sequence. I started to enter deductions, then went back to the income section to check something. When I tried to return to the beginning of the deductions interview, I was instead taken to the 2019 deduction summary, even though I had indicated that I wanted to itemize rather than take the standard deduction. I had to click on each applicable topic in the list to complete it, without the guidance offered in the interview process.

There are multiple ways to respond to the site's queries. You fill in blanks, click in checkboxes or select from lists, click on Yes or No, and so on. If your employer or financial institution is supported (and many are, with additional employers added for the 2019 tax year), you can import data from forms like the W-2 and 1099s.

If you're working with a field that contains calculated totals, you can click the icon that looks like a hand holding a pencil, which lets you enter the individual items that made up those totals in the table provided. This is for your own information only and won't be filed. It's a helpful way to document your work. Jackson Hewitt offers a similar tool.

Reporting Income and Expenses

Once you've completed the personal information section, TaxAct asks you in a series of screens about tax issues like income types, interest/dividend income and IRAs, special family and education expenses, and your housing situation. You don't have to provide specifics here; TaxAct just wants to know what topics it needs to cover (though you have the option to add to this list later). Then, TaxAct begins the questioning. You can either select the topics you need to cover or let the site walk you step-by-step through a very lengthy interview.

If you opt to choose your own, TaxAct shows a navigational menu that lists all the site's sections. Some have multiple subsections that drop down if you click on the arrow next to the main entry. Click on one, and the site will walk you through the issues there, then return you to the main page. TaxSlayer works similarly; you can see all supported topics at once or break it down into individual lists by type (such as income and deductions).

Along the way, TaxAct occasionally gives you two options for entering your tax data. For example, when you need to record interest income, it will ask if you want to enter the details on a reproduction of the 1099-INT form or continue in Q&A style. Not everyone offers this flexibility.

TaxAct Warning

After you complete all the federal screens and get a recap of the totals in each section (along with your refund or obligation), TaxAct transfers applicable information to any state return you must file and helps you complete it. Once you think you've taken care of all pertinent topics, TaxAct runs its exceptional review tool, which looks for incomplete or inconsistent information and other problems that might lead to an inaccurate return. It also flags potential tax savings.

When it finds an error, the tool displays the error on the screen and provides fields for corrections and additions without forcing you to find your way back to the original page. This review process has been renamed the Deduction Double Checker; the company claims it digs deeper than ever to find every possible tax break. TaxAct has also introduced a new tax-planning tool that provides targeted advice for the upcoming tax year.

For software that automates a process as anxiety-producing as personal tax preparation, a compelling interface is essential. Skillful, creative design can make any user experience just a little less draining. TaxAct Deluxe+ has again improved that element of its tax prep site this year. Screens are clean and attractive and easier to read than last year's. TurboTax still has the overall edge in terms of providing an exceptional user experience, but TaxAct Deluxe+ is catching up.

TaxAct Nondeductible

Several Support Avenues

Excellent built-in help and support are critical components of effective tax preparation websites. These applications can't be expected to help extensively with every obscure and complicated tax topic (though they might surprise you in this regard). They should, however, at least pose questions in plain language and provide additional explanations on the screen that answer the most common questions.

You should also have the option to click on hyperlinked words, phrases, or buttons that take you to even clearer, simpler guidance for advanced topics. At the very least, these services should have a searchable database that puts the best-matched links at the top of the results list. Tax preparation websites that do well in our rankings clarify complex IRS language.

TaxAct Deluxe+ has some points in its favor here. It used to display context-sensitive help topics in the right vertical pane (along with more general FAQs). I always liked that feature. These have been replaced with a menu of help tools that never changes, and whose content is not context-sensitive. It includes TaxTutor Guidance (which does occasionally provide context-sensitive information), IRS form instructions, a glossary, and general help topics. This is good information, but it requires another layer of searching and/or scrolling. The only way you can get context-sensitive help is to enter a word or phrase in the search box. The Answer Center opens and displays multiple search results; these articles address their topics effectively and are sometimes quite lengthy. H&R Block has the edge here in terms of the simplicity and accessibility of its help content; it's also much more context-sensitive. The Answer Center also provides direct links to related forms and schedules.

I was told several times that I could read a specific IRS publication (which the site provided access to) for more information. These are, of course, by definition, accurate documents, but they can be difficult to decipher. The ability to avoid IRS documents altogether is a big reason for using a tax preparation website in the first place. TaxAct is not alone in this practice.

There are other support options. Hyperlinked words and phrases open the glossary to the correct entry. You can click the small circled "i" link where it appears to open a small help window with an explanation of the concept. Finally, phone and email help are free. Of course, you're much more likely to get a quick response if you file early, before everyone else. That's just one more reason not to be a last-minute e-filer.

Mobile Translations

TaxAct mobile

Although TaxAct doesn't offer standalone apps, the company does a good job of using responsive design to translate the desktop version into a mobile experience. I tested its Android app and iPhone app. Both versions look and work like the desktop version. Click a link in the upper-left corner, and the site outline opens. Click on Federal, for example, and a menu displays links to the Form 1040's core sections. Click a link in the upper-right corner, and you get access to the support and tools found in the right vertical pane in the full version.

TaxAct manages to reproduce the content, navigation system, and help resources you'd find if you were using it on your PC, though I ran into some trouble. There seemed to be problems with the help center. Sometimes topics wouldn't open. When one entry started with the phrase "Navigate to," I assumed it would take me to that section of the tax return. But instead, it took me back to the help center's main menu. Sometimes I was able to back up to see the topic, and other times, I was asked if I wanted to exit. I was able to close the menu by clicking the X sometimes, and the topic would then be displayed.

Tax preparation websites tout their solutions' transportability. That is, you can start your return on one device and pick up where you left off on another by signing in. Having similar user interfaces on both mobile and desktop editions makes this much easier.

A Safe, Affordable Choice

TaxAct Deluxe+ offers commendable tax form and schedule support and an improved user interface and navigation tools. But I'm puzzled about the changes in the site's help systems. It never had the strongest tools in this area, but support was more accessible and context-sensitive last year. If you've used it before, there's no real reason to switch—unless your tax situation has changed, and you anticipate needing extra guidance, or you simply want the superior user experience that TurboTax offers (at a higher price). TurboTax is our Editors' Choice for that reason and many others, including its innovative and exceptional support options, understandable help content, and deep exploration of the 1040.

Once you're finished taking care of last year's finances, you should also consider the future. For your own money, you can read our story about the best personal finance software, and if you run a small business, we have a roundup of the best accounting software.


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