TurboTax hasn't changed much over the last couple of years, but then it didn't have to given its healthy dose of guidance for working through an income tax return with explanations and help embedded throughout the tax interview, strong visual cues and easy navigation.
In addition to online, Windows and Mac tax software, TurboTax has mobile tax apps for Android and iPhone, and this year adds an app that has been customized for the iPad with features that are identical to TurboTax Deluxe, Premium and Home & Business. All TurboTax apps work together, so you can start your return on a mobile device or iPad and finish it at your desk with the online app.
While the iPad app is exciting news, the new feature that I am most impressed with in TurboTax for tax year 2011 is the free Ask a Tax Expert service, with free tax help and advice from a tax professional. This service is available to all TurboTax users, even those who use the Free Edition, via phone or chat. All of the tax experts are CPAs, IRS enrolled agents and tax attorneys. The benefit of this service is that you can save money by completing and filing your taxes yourself and still advice if you need it.
TurboTax also made some aspects of completing a tax return easier this year. For example, there's enhanced help for determining who you can claim as a dependent and for unemployment compensation.
If you aren't filing a 1040 EZ, TurboTax Deluxe, Premier and Home & Business are structured for various levels of deductions and tax reporting. The cost runs from $29.95 to 99.95, with the online versions being less expensive than those for Windows and Mac desktop. You can get more information about the differences between versions by reading TurboTax Versions, Prices and Features.
All TurboTax software and mobile apps come with an accuracy guarantee and maximum refund guarantee. Basic help with tax audits is included, but you'll have to pay $39.95 for Audit Defense to get the same level of support as is offered by H&R Block At Home tax software. Prices quoted here are subject to change.
Getting Around and Using TurboTax
When TurboTax starts, it presents a checklist of life events that may pertain to your personal income taxes. Check off the events that applied to you over the past year, and TurboTax customizes the tax interview for your needs.
There are a few ways to move around in TurboTax, and you can work ahead in your tax return and then return to areas that still need to be completed. The main tax topic tabs (such as Personal Info, Business, Personal, etc.) are located at the top of the screen, and subtopics can be chosen beneath each tab. Each primary topic in the tax interview offers two ways to proceed through the interview: EasyGuide, which goes through every question in the tax interview and Explore on My Own, which gives you selectable options for determining which tax topics to cover. The Explore on My Own path can also be used to navigate ahead in the tax return, or click on the Tools button located above help resources, then Topic List to see completed topics and those you have yet to visit.
The Flag feature is used to note parts of the return you need to revisit to add information to, and is another way of moving ahead in the return if you want to do so. Think of the Flags as you would Post It notes used to call your attention to various sections on the pages of a paper tax return. Set Flags by clicking on the button on the top right, just about the Help Center, give the flag a title and add any other information you may need when you come back to that part of the return. View flags you created by clicking again on the flag button.
I had no problems with navigation in TurboTax. As I clicked around and used the software to complete a tax return, it consistently behaved as expected. The only minor glitch that I experienced was that I was asked to agree to the terms of the license agreement each time that I logged in. A confusing issue that came up was when I tried to import a 1099 INT, and Chase Bank was not available to download the information from. It turns out that Chase did not yet have 1099s prepared, so this really isn't a TurboTax issue, although some explanation from the software would have been helpful.
A Security Feature Fumble
If you don't use TurboTax Online for 20 minutes it will automatically log you out so no one else can see your personal financial data. When I walked away from my computer for 20 minutes or more and later tried to resume working on my tax return, the last page of the return I had been working in was on my screen. When I touched the keyboard, a message popped up to warn me that I had been logged out for Security purposes. It would actually be more secure if TurboTax automatically flipped to that warning page after 20 minutes of inactivity rather than leaving the last screen I was working on up in the browser.
Getting the Maximum Deduction for Your Donations
If you tell TurboTax that you made charitable contributions in 2011, you will be offered the option of entering your non-cash donations to charity in TurboTax ItsDeductible Online. Use this tool and you'll likely get a higher value for those donations than if you guessed at the values on your own. ItsDeductible Online also tracks miles you put on your vehicle while working for a charitable cause and cash or investments that you donate. Once you enter all your donations, import the data to TurboTax desktop software and Online Deluxe and higher versions.
TurboTax Live Community is an active online forum use for getting answers from other TurboTax users to questions by searching previously asked questions or by entering your own question. Another option for getting help is to click on Get Expert Help which brings up a searchable Help Center that defaults to Q&A pertaining to the part of the return you're currently working in. Click on any of six general topics, drill down into subtopics, and you can click on Contact Us to get access to tech support or a tax professional, depending on whether you're having problems with using the software or figuring out a tax issue.
Bottom Line Review: TurboTax
TurboTax is probably the most expensive tax software out there, but the ease of use and active Live Community combined with access to tax experts for help with state and federal tax questions for all versions all adds up to justify the price tag. Speaking of cost, TurboTax prices have historically gone up as the deadline for filing taxes gets closer.
The only thing missing from TurboTax that its nearest competitor, H&R Block At Home, offers is an enrolled agent to assist you in the rare event that you are audited. However, Audit Defensee, described above, provides this service at an additional cost. All things considered, TurboTax is an excellent choice and a great value in tax software for tax year 2011.