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How to Choose Online Tax Software for Business: A Buyer's Guide

image for simpson33 / Getty Images
simpson33 / Getty Images

With the deadline to file state and federal taxes approaching, many want to file their businesses' taxes early. That's a great goal for the start of a new year, but filing safely and accurately is even more important than beating the mid-April rush. One way to do that is to use tax preparation software.

Because everyone's tax burdens are unique to their situation, there are various small business tax software solutions to handle different company needs. With good online tax software, you can file your small business taxes without any assistance from a tax professional, saving you time and money.

That's not to say all business tax software solutions are the right choice for your situation, nor does it mean you should never hire an accountant or CPA if your taxes are complex. Remember, errors and omissions can result in hefty fees and legal issues with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

For business owners trying to get a jump on the 2019 tax filing season or at risk of just barely making it before the April 15, 2020 deadline, we've reviewed today's leading companies in the online tax software space and created this handy buying guide to walk you through the selection process. With the right attention to your specific needs and the options out there, you can safely and easily file your state and federal taxes.

When you look at online tax software options, you should keep some details in mind. If you know which forms you need to file, make sure the program you choose supports them. If you need to file state taxes, you should also see if that filing is included in the initial cost or if it will require an additional fee. If you're looking for the biggest federal tax return, software that can accurately find and apply various deductions and credits is a major timesaver.

Perhaps the most important factor of all is the accuracy of the tax software. No matter how quickly it gets the job done or how easy it is to use, any money you initially saved will be moot if you get audited by the IRS and owe the government money because of errors or omissions.

Selecting tax software is more than looking at screenshots of an interface and going for the cheapest option. Function and accuracy are king.

Most online tax software vendors have several plans with tiered pricing, so the cost depends on your needs. Every software option has its own feature mix and pricing structure, so you should identify which features you need so that you can accurately compare products. The less expensive options might meet your needs, but if you need advanced features, the software will usually cost more.

There are many cheap tax software solutions on the market, but some cut corners or lack essential features. Others are highly effective at filing your taxes. It all depends on your specific needs, but avoid choosing software solely based on price when browsing companies.

Most online tax systems are simple to learn and easy to use once you get acquainted with the user interface, but it never hurts to try them out before you spend any money. You don't want to find out the software you purchased is a nightmare to navigate and makes the process of completing your tax forms even more confusing.

Many tax software companies offer free demos of their software. If a company doesn't advertise one on its website, ask for one. If the provider refuses, consider that a red flag. Most reputable companies will let you test-drive their software.

One of the most important features of any tax software application is the type of forms it can file. Make sure it supports the forms you need. Most leading software programs support a huge variety of forms, so odds are good you'll be able to find what you need if you select the right pricing tier.

You also need to consider state taxes, not just federal. Does the software offer all the state forms you require? Does it charge an additional fee for state returns? If so, how much?

Another consideration is how you'll get your money if you're owed a federal return. Some software makes this process easy with options for direct deposit and PayPal. Even a traditional check by mail is usually available if that's your preference. Other programs support only specific delivery methods, such as gift cards and prefilled debit cards. Make sure the software you're considering supports the disbursement method that is most convenient for you.

Any tax software worth its salt maintains a database of hundreds of tax deductions and credits. Unless you know for sure how the company has built deductions into its system, it's hard to tell if your software will overlook opportunities for you to reduce your tax burden. Speak at length with company representatives about how the software handles deductions and credits, and ask how you can be assured of its accuracy. Most online tax software programs run an accuracy check to ensure precision – press the company reps for details on this function.

Many tax programs are web-based or have mobile apps, so you can pretty much do your taxes anywhere. Some programs, however, are not fully compatible with various platforms. Does the software work on Mac for home or office filing, or just on PC? What about a mobile app for filing or checking your financial status – will it work on both Android and iOS phones? Flexibility and compatibility are the names of the game here, so make certain you can run the software on your preferred platforms before you purchase anything.

Even with the most comprehensive tax software, accidents do happen. When errors occur, it's good to have a professional tax preparer in your corner. Some of the leading companies offer their tax preparers' services, which are either included in the total purchase or available as an add-on. If you think you'll need help along the way, keep this option in mind when comparing tax software.

The quality and availability of both technical support and customer service are important. If something goes wrong, you want reliable, helpful and forthcoming staff members responding to your requests. Acquaint yourself with the company you're considering before making a final decision; good tech support can turn a crisis into a minor inconvenience, so don't compromise on value here.

If you do your research, you can be confident that the tax software provider you choose will make the headache of tax season a little bit easier to handle. At best, you might even collect some money you didn't realize you were entitled to.

Additional reporting by Adam C. Uzialko.

Ready to choose your online tax software application? Here's a breakdown of the rest of our coverage:

Andrew Martins

Andrew Martins is an award-winning journalist with a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Ramapo College of New Jersey. Before joining business.com and Business News Daily, he wrote for a regional publication and served as the managing editor for six weekly papers that spanned four counties. Currently, he is responsible for reviewing tax software and online fax services. He is a New Jersey native and a first-generation Portuguese American, and he has a penchant for the nerdy.