A Less Taxing Alternative

If you usually slide through the post office door right before it swings shut on April 15, you’re not alone. Each year, just before midnight, millions of last-minute filers cram into mail centers to beat Uncle Sam’s tax deadline. “When it comes to something like taxes, we put them on the back burner. We know we have to deal with them eventually, but if it’s not the crisis of the hour, we put it off,” says Sandra E. Cox, executive director of the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals Inc. in Los Angeles and a member of the Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi).

But times are changing. With the federal government’s push to have 80% of tax returns filed online by 2007, now is a good time for last-minute filers to reap the benefits of procrastination. Toni Radcliffe, a district manager for H&R Block, says electronic filing is better because the return “gets there faster. It’s checked for mistakes, such as math errors and Social Security number or name mismatches, and it goes back to you immediately to be fixed if there are mistakes.” Anthony King, CPA, of the 45-year-old firm King, King & Associates P.A. in Baltimore adds, “If you do have a refund coming, it speeds up the process from six to eight weeks to four or five days.” But he notes that there’s no reason to file electronically if you owe taxes.

Thanks to software, you won’t have to play beat the clock or stand in long lines—unless you really want to. To help you meet the deadline gracefully, we’ve evaluated three tax preparation software packages and collected a few helpful tips.

The three popular tax preparation software packages we evaluated guide you through the filing process, remind you of possible deductions, and explain complicated items. If you’re unsure about which information to include, you needn’t be; these programs have electronic help buttons and provide assistance in the form of text or videos.

Tax preparation software allows you to file electronically from home without going through a third-party service that charges a fee. In addition, the IRS has signed an agreement with Free File Alliance L.L.C. that will allow up to 78 million taxpayers to electronically file their tax returns for free since January 2003. Tax software companies will provide the service, and the IRS will provide links to them through www.irs.gov (where you can also download tax forms) and www.first \gov.gov. Each of the programs reviewed (TaxCut Platinum 2002, TurboTax Premier 2002, and TaxAct 2002 Deluxe) permits at least one free federal e-filing.

TaxCut offers a step-by-step Next button format. The program features tabs that let you move freely between federal and state tax forms, information on the filing process, and tips on preparing next year’s taxes. You can also answer questions and return to them later without losing information. The planning area helps you estimate 2003 taxes, prepare for life changes, and optimize your retirement plan; it even offers a free investment plan. Interview assistants help