Tax Software vs. Accountant: Which Is Best for You?
Few Americans look forward to filing their taxes, and most employ outside help in the form of an accountant or tax software.
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And that’s generally a wise choice, as it’s become increasingly difficult to keep up with ever-changing tax laws. But, which of the two — tax software or an accountant — is the best type of help for your personal financial situation? Here’s a look at the pros and cons of each type of tax assistance to help you make that decision.
Tax software, originated by TurboTax in 1984, allows even those non-versed in accounting or taxation to successfully complete and submit their taxes to both federal and state governments, where applicable. For those wanting the ease of doing their own taxes at home — with some professional guidance — tax software may be the way to go.
- Convenience: Even if you don’t like doing your taxes, there’s nothing more convenient than opening your computer at home, clicking a few buttons, answering a few questions and having your taxes done by software. You don’t have to drive across town to run your tax software, or make an appointment, or even change out of your pajamas.
- Cost: For simple returns, accountants may not charge too much, but unless they’re working for free, they’ll never be more inexpensive than tax software. For most tax returns, you’ll end up paying less than $100, and some programs won’t charge you anything at all.
- Speed: With tax software, as soon as you’re done and ready to file your taxes, you can submit them to the IRS or your state taxing authority with the push of a button. You’ll likely get confirmation that your tax returns were accepted within a matter of minutes.
- Limited functionality: Tax software has gotten very comprehensive, but no piece of software can account for every single tax situation. If you have a complicated tax return or something unorthodox in your income or expenses, your tax software may not be able to process it.
- No room for creativity: The tax code creates many gray areas, but tax software is strictly black and white. In other words, tax software is unlikely to suggest money-saving tax deductions or strategies that stretch the envelope, even if they remain perfectly legal.
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An accountant is a financial professional who can perform a wide range of duties for clients, from record-keeping to auditing to preparing tax returns. For those not interested in doing their own taxes, an accountant can do most of the heavy lifting.
- Professional insight: A good accountant keeps up on tax laws and changes and knows the ins-and-outs of how to maximize deductions and tax credits. In some cases, this alone can more than pay for the cost of their services.
- Audit defense: Although many tax software programs offer “free audit protection,” there’s nothing better than a seasoned professional going toe-to-toe with the IRS or the Tax Court if you’re in a bind.
- Year-round services: Tax software is a once-per-year event, but tax planning, especially for those with complicated situations, requires year-round attention. This year-round availability is a major advantage an accountant has over tax software.
- Better software: Few if any accountants actually perform tax computations by hand anymore. Rather, accountants typically use software of their own. But the software that top accountants use is much higher-level than the over-the-counter products bought by most Americans, ensuring a better, more professional experience for their clients.
- Cost: In nearly every imaginable scenario, an accountant will cost you more than if you simply use tax software. In some cases, fees can run over $1,000.
- Inconvenient: Most accountants are busy people, especially during tax season. If you want to get your taxes done, you’ll likely have to make an appointment well in advance and meet in an office, which brings in further aggravations like traffic and parking.
- Lack of privacy: If you work with an accountant, you’ll be providing all of your sensitive financial information to what may be a complete stranger. Some taxpayers are uncomfortable with that type of disclosure.
- You’ll still have to do some work: Although an accountant can do most of the processing, you’ll still have to collect all of your relevant tax forms and information, from W-2s and 1099s to receipts for potential tax deductions.
The Bottom Line
Generally speaking, tax software is sufficient to get the job done for most simple tax returns. But if you prefer the hand-holding that a professional accountant can offer, or if you have a complex tax situation that’s simply beyond the capabilities of software, then you’ll want to look for professional help.
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