For the last several years, we’ve reviewed a tax preparation website called CompleteTax. Unlike its competitors, this site did not begin its life as a desktop product; it launched on the Web. CompleteTax’s parent company, CCH, has been in the business of supporting taxpayers since 1913, the year the tax code was created. CCH analyzes tax law and publishes voluminous resources. The product still exists, but it’s now called eSmart tax—I reviewed eSmart Tax Premium.
The app is now supported by Liberty Tax Service, which has built 4,000 local offices in the U.S. and Canada since its launch in 1997. This tax preparation franchise had used the CompleteTax framework for two years, but this year it is playing a leading role in its website operations. If you need support this year, you’ll be dealing with Liberty Tax Service, which also backs your return and e-files it.
I reviewed the Premium version, which costs the same as its competition’s Deluxe versions, and is $10 cheaper than last year. If you plan to file a Schedule C, you have to spring for this top-of-the-line offering.
eSmart Tax, as you might expect, provides accurate, comprehensive coverage of the most commonly-faced tax situations, as well as several more uncommon ones. Like the others reviewed here, it asks an exhaustive list of questions as it tries to find all of your income, deductions and credits. eSmart Tax is comparable to its competitors in that sense, but lags behind TurboTax in terms of its user interface and review process. The site’s overall help system, though, rivals the leader’s; it’s at least as comprehensive and context-sensitive.
A Simple Process
eSmart Tax moves through your return in a fashion similar to its competitors. It gathers your personal information upfront (address, Social Security numbers, dependents, etc.). Here and throughout the tax prep process, you’re presented with lengthy lists of questions meant to both feed information to your return and determine which elements of the site should be emphasized. These are yes or no questions, like, “Did you have any deductions such as the following?” (mortgage interest medical expenses, etc.) During this interview process, you’ll often have to enter information in fields or select from list of options.
You don’t ever see your 1040 shaping up as you go along. But eSmart Tax takes your responses, does any necessary calculating and deposits the information in the correct fields on your return. It really is like sitting in a tax preparer’s office answering questions and providing the backup documentation required.
When you’ve answered every pertinent question, eSmart Tax analyzes your return and either suggests or insists on changes, depending on the issue. Once it’s satisfied, you can transfer necessary information into a state return and complete it in the same fashion. After you’ve breathed a sigh of relief, you can print and/or e-file your return (the latter is recommended, and will be required someday).
Multiple Navigational Options
Simple, obvious navigational tools help you move through the interview. Tabs at the top of the screen display the site’s primary sections: Personal, Employment, Deductions, Investments, Retirement, Miscellaneous, and Filing Options. Sub-tabs beneath each further divide those sections into smaller bites.
You can use these for navigation, but you’re less likely to miss something critical if you progress through the site using the “Previous” and “Continue” buttons on each screen. These advance you forward or back one page. The “Quick Navigation” link takes you to another option. It presents a tree-like outline of the entire site’s screens; you can click on one link to move directly to that page. These are all standard conventions that eSmart Tax’s competitors employ.
CompleteTax revamped the user interface a couple of years ago, but the site still lags behind its competition in this area. It doesn’t look like a polished, state-of-the-art website yet. Some elements look great, like the main tabs and buttons, but the work windows could use freshening up.
Generous, Ubiquitous Help
There’s no shortage of intelligent, readily-available guidance throughout the site. eSmart Tax shares many attributes found on its competitors’ sites. For example, alerts at the top of many screens warn you about related actions that could cause errors. Words and phrases that are hyperlinked throughout the site open windows that contain extended explanations of what’s needed there. Sometimes, there are even hyperlinked terms within those windows.
When you click, “Help on This Page” in the right vertical pane, the window that opens provides guidance on the current topic. In many of these windows, there’s a link on the bottom that takes you to additional help from CCH’s Tax Guide 2013. This, too, is context-sensitive. But you must click on the Tax Guide link from within the main help window for it to be so. If you click the Tax Guide link from the right vertical pane, you’ll have to search through the entire voluminous resource to find related help.
eSmart Tax doesn’t offer the free-wheeling, call-anytime policy that Intuit does, but if you’re really stuck, you can request a phone call from Liberty Tax Service. Email and chat questions are preferred.
CompleteTax always had an advantage over its competitors because it had a century’s worth of tax resources ready to use in its online product. For its first few years, this wasn’t as well-organized or context-sensitive as it’s become. And the effectiveness of its user interface has always paled in comparison to its rivals’. But this year, despite the interface weakness and because of the strong help system, it has moved ahead of H&R Block At Home Deluxe Online in terms of its star rating. Block is more comprehensive in terms of the variety of ways it supports tax preparation, but its website can’t match what competitors offer anymore.
TurboTax Still Best Overall
If you want the whole package, I recommend TurboTax Deluxe Online for the 2012 tax year. TaxACT is still the least expensive and a very good tax preparation website, so that deserves a first look, especially if your budget is really tight—you may be able to use the free version. And if you don’t mind a less-than-elegant user interface and want an abundance of expert onscreen help, take eSmart Tax out for a trial run.
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