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Best tax software for 2021: TurboTax, H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and more compared

Between rules about paid sick leaveunemployment insurance claimsstimulus check income and a pervasive shift to working from home, there are multiple issues — all of which could have tax consequences — that may make your tax filing process more complicated than previous years. Otherwise, you’ll want to roll up your sleeves, collect your paperwork and choose a tax software program to help you navigate the host of new tax complexities and opportunities.

Read more: Calculate your child tax credit for 2021

If you have a simple tax situation or earn less than $72,000 a year, you can file your taxes for free. But if your tax situation is more complicated, or you just want to make sure you’re not leaving any money on the table, there are plenty of capable, reasonably priced tax software platforms that can help simplify the process. Check out our top picks below.

Intuit

There’s something for all filers with TurboTax — the company offers a myriad of options for your tax return even if your tax situation is complicated. A bonus for tax filers who use Quickbooks software (hello sole proprietors!): You can connect it to TurboTax, useful for self-employed people or real estate investors. And if your tax situation isn’t complicated (requiring lots of itemized deductions or advice on taxes, for instance) the user-friendly interface makes it simple to breeze through tax preparation and file your taxes. TurboTax Deluxe, its most popular tax filing option, searches standard deductions and looks for a tax credit to get you your maximum refund. And TurboTax Premier is specifically designed for taxpayers that have investments or rental property. 

It’s worth noting that in June 2020, Intuit announced a new free tool to help customers navigate the government’s CARES Act assistance programs — and you don’t need to be a TurboTax user to access it. The company’s Aid Assist tool helps individuals and small business owners determine eligibility and the tax impact of the Paycheck Protection Program, Economic Injury Disaster Loans, employee retention credits and other associated programs.

TurboTax is hands-down the best tax software for live personal support — a must for many people when they’re filing taxes online. For an extra fee, you get TurboTax Live where a tax filer can receive help from a certified tax professional through on-demand support via live video chat (the basic version of TurboTax Live will be free through Feb. 15). A tax expert will also review your return before it’s sent off to the IRS, ensuring you’re making the proper deductions and just making sure your tax situation is under control. Max, its audit defense option, offers a dedicated specialist to represent you. It also includes identity theft coverage services such as identity loss monitoring and insurance. Not too shabby for an e-file provider.

One caveat is that you will probably pay more compared to the others on our list. There is a free tax filing version, however, for simple tax returns only — though it’s one of the few services you can enlist to access the help of certified tax specialists without actually seeing one in person.

Pricing: Free to $90 for federal; $40 per state; free to $170 for TurboTax Live; additional $45 to $60 for Max

H&R Block

It’s not as intuitive to use as TurboTax, but H&R Block is another heavy hitter tax service that offers unlimited technical support to all filers as well as phone and chat support for those who opt for more expensive packages. The online tax software platform features an intuitive survey format to guide you through the tax return process, with built-in calculators to help navigate many tax situations and a library of detailed articles that illuminate a wide swath of simple and complex scenarios. 

We like that you can file your taxes online, in-person, via its app or by downloading its tax prep software. And H&R Block recently added a virtual filing option where you can just upload your documentation, and have a tax expert take care of the rest of it. You can import a prior year’s income tax returns from another platform. H&R Block offers a comprehensive money-back guarantee — and will give you a 3.5% refund bonus if you’ll take it as an Amazon gift card. And, for an additional fee, you can get a certified tax pro to review your tax return before filing it.

One drawback: You won’t receive in-person tax professional support if you end up getting audited unless you pay for a higher tier of service. 

Pricing: Free to $85 for federal; $37 per state; $40 to $145 for Online Assist

Best tax software for 2021: TurboTax, H&R Block, Jackson Hewitt and more compared


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Jackson Hewitt

In addition to a dead-simple interface, comprehensive library of tax articles and helpful built-in calculators, Jackson Hewitt Online offers the best refund insurance. The service features free IRS audit assistance and a Worry-Free Guarantee plan, which promises to reimburse you if you end up receiving a reduced refund or face additional tax liabilities. And if you’re concerned about your tax liabilities, you can opt for the Worry-Free Guarantee Platinum tier, which includes Audit Security support with a dedicated specialist to manage and represent your case.

Otherwise, Jackson Hewitt’s tax preparation service is in line with what you’ll find elsewhere: You can import older tax returns prepared on other tax prep platforms, tech support via live chat, a free tier of service for basic returns and auto completion of state returns.

Jackson Hewitt is offering a special deal to CNET readers: Use the special code VIPONLY to have your federal return and an unlimited number of state returns prepared for $20 (e-filing only). 

TaxSlayer

If you’re looking for the best value, TaxSlayer is a relatively inexpensive tax preparation service and provides all of the tax forms you’ll need. That noted, though the free version comes with some degree of access to personalized tax advice, you’ll need to pay for a more expensive package, such as TaxSlayer Premium, to get comprehensive assistance from a tax professional, including live phone and chat support, as well as audit protection. 

Note that TaxSlayer’s offer of a no-interest advance on your tax refund (after the IRS accepted your filing) expired last year.

Pricing: Free to $47 for federal; $39 per state

Credit Karma

If you’re looking for the best free tax software, this is it. While some free tax filing software packages will charge for prepping your state returns, Credit Karma Tax doesn’t. It features a user-friendly interface, helpful guidance to explain tax-related terminology and live chat support for technical, though not tax-related, issues. You can import a tax return from the IRS, as well as from TurboTax (whose parent company, Intuit, also owns Credit Karma), H&R Block or TaxAct. And Credit Karma covers more sophisticated tax filing issues than most other free packages including itemized deductions, business income or expenses, self-employment taxes and capital gains and losses. 

Other highlights include income tax audit defense, which includes a consultation with a representative who can also attend a hearing on your behalf and help with tax debt resolution options. And if you end up receiving a larger tax refund or owe less in federal taxes after filing with Credit Karma, you may be able to collect up to $100 in gift cards. 

Credit Karma’s tax software has some limitations: You can’t file your state taxes without filing your federal taxes first, and it doesn’t support multiple state filings, part-year state filing or nonresident state filing — which may be a concern for more folks than ever in 2021. It also can’t be used to file returns for previous years or to deal with thorny issues like foreign-earned income or “married filing separately” returns (in community property states). 

TaxAct

TaxAct’s major distinction is its $100,000 Accuracy Guarantee. Basically, the company will pay you back for any difference between what it calculates as your tax liability and what you end up owing the IRS — extending from your refund to any penalties or interest — up to $100,000. (It will also refund your TaxAct software fees.) If you are in a high tax bracket or have a particularly complicated tax situation, where errors may be more likely, TaxAct is a good tax preparation choice. 

Otherwise, TaxAct is a pretty straightforward service. Depending on how much you pay in income tax, you can access tax filing guidance from a tax specialist that ranges from in-app chat support (with screen-share capabilities) to unlimited one-on-one advice over the phone. It’s simple to import previous tax returns, navigate the platform and browse through the knowledge database as you input your itemized deductions. 

Pricing: Free to $65 for federal; $5 to $45 per state filing; extra cost for tax specialist support

FreeTaxUSA

Comparable to Credit Karma Tax, FreeTaxUSA is mostly free — except you’ll need to pay to file state taxes. It offers options for importing previous tax returns and filing an amended tax return. The deluxe version includes priority live chat and customer support and access to its tax specialists and audit service. These tax expert professionals should be able to address all your specific income tax return questions — from how to understand an audit notice to what paperwork you’ll need to how to write a response to the IRS.

Pricing: Free for federal; $13 per state; $7 deluxe version

Tax software, compared

Free version Paid version Federal taxes State taxes Live support
TurboTax Yes $40-$90 for self preparation; $90-$170 for “Live” tier of service Yes Yes Yes (costs extra)
H&R Block Yes $30-$85 for self preparation; $40-$145 for “Online Assist” tier of service; $69 for in-person drop-off Yes Yes Yes (costs extra)
Jackson Hewitt Online Yes $30-$50 for self preparation Yes Yes Yes
TaxSlayer Yes $17-$47 for self preparation Yes Yes Yes (costs extra)
Credit Karma Tax Yes No Yes Yes No
TaxAct Yes $25-$65 for self preparation; extra cost for additional support Yes Yes Yes
FreeTaxUSA Yes $7 for self preparation Yes Yes Yes (costs extra)

Taxes FAQ

Tax season is nigh — and our 2020 taxes, which we’ll file in 2021, promise to be among the most confusing and complicated ever. Against a turbulent political backdrop, many of us will face new questions about the tax implications of unemployment insurance claimsstimulus payments and pandemic-driven changes in residence. Though the dust is still settling from the election, we expect to see more tax-related responses to the continuing economic headwinds caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For now, here are a few commonly asked questions and answers about filing your tax return in 2021. 

What’s the best tax software for 2021?

There are plenty of tax preparation software packages that will make the filing process easier. If you’re looking for tax software with the best live personal support, we recommend TurboTax by Intuit. H&R Block will help you get your taxes done in person or online, via its app or by downloading its software. Jackson Hewitt Online has the best refund insurance policy. TaxSlayer offers the best overall price, TaxAct has the best accuracy guarantee and FreeTaxUSA offers the best price for audit support. And, assuming you have a simple return, Credit Karma Tax is the best free option.

When will I get my refund?

The IRS says that 90% of refunds are issued “in 21 days or less.” Based on previous years, you can expect your 2021 refund to arrive somewhere between one week after filing (if you e-file with direct deposit set up) and two months (if you mail in your forms and choose to get a check). And if you were one of the millions of people who never received all or part of their stimulus check, you can now claim that money on your 2020 tax return. 

What happens if I miss the tax deadline?

If you are owed a refund, there is no penalty for filing late (though this may be different for your state taxes). But if you owe the IRS, penalties and interest will start to accrue on any remaining unpaid tax due in May. There’s also a $330 failure-to-file income tax penalty under the Taxpayer First Act of 2019. 

The editorial content on this page is based solely on objective, independent assessments by our writers and is not influenced by advertising or partnerships. It has not been provided or commissioned by any third party. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products or services offered by our partners.

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