PC tax kits go 'out of the box'

Leading software packages now offer links to online tax experts

Live tax advice is the latest wrinkle in tax-preparation software. Both leading packages offer Internet links to tax experts who will e-mail or even call you with answers to your questions. It's another reason to consider using tax software to ease those filing blues.

Consumers who make that choice have fewer options this year. As usual, Intuit's top-selling TurboTax is battling No. 2 Kiplinger TaxCut from H&R Block. But Microsoft has axed its tax package and teamed up with H&R Block this year. The duo's TaxCut program is the budget option. TurboTax offers a more polished and comfortable interface.

Both programs offer all the IRS forms and instructions most taxpayers will ever need. By working through their respective interviews, users can confidently and quickly fill out their returns.

The deluxe versions of the programs allow you to do your state tax returns, offer extra help, and include short video explanations, which are surprisingly succinct and informative.

Yet small problems remain.

TaxCut's integration stumbles at times. For example, the program makes the distinction between 50 percent and 30 percent limitations on charitable contributions, but offers no quick link to explain that distinction.

TurboTax no longer directly imports data from older versions of its sister program, Quicken. (You can still import indirectly, but why make it so difficult? Does Intuit want all Quicken users to upgrade?)

TurboTax offers a slick new feature that allows users with Internet access to download their W-2 forms as well as interest and dividend data from financial companies.

My employer doesn't yet offer an electronic W-2, but I was able to download dividends and capital-gains data from my Vanguard mutual fund.

The live tax advice, meanwhile, represents an intriguing but unproven option for most users.

If you have a burning question that needs an answer right now, H&R Block's service - offered through TaxCut - is the way to go. Seconds after I clicked through the online sign-up site, Betty was calling me from one of H&R Block's Maine offices. Since she didn't have specific expertise about my question, I left feeling more informed, but not completely satisfied. The flat fee was $19.95.

TurboTax's option lets you e-mail (or occasionally call) various tax experts and negotiate a price beforehand. The promise is that the answer should be much more succinct, but it will take hours or perhaps more than a day to get it. (The IRS, meanwhile, offers to answer your tax questions for free within three business days.)

Even if you don't take advantage of all these bells and whistles, these software packages can speed up the filing process for most taxpayers. TaxCut costs $9.99; the deluxe version is $19.95. TurboTax retails for $14.95 after rebate; deluxe, $29.95 after rebate.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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