Inexpensive. Supports all major IRS forms and schedules. W-2 import from providers. Email and phone help. Good knowledge base.
Could use more and better context-sensitive help. User experience needs refinement. Tax return review not effective in testing. No Life Events feature.
- Bottom Line
TaxSlayer Classic is an affordable tax preparation service, but its context-sensitive help is lacking and its user interface could use more polish.
TaxSlayer started as a tool for accountants and professional tax preparers. In the late 1990s, the company entered the individual tax preparation software market and it has had a big presence ever since. We reviewed TaxSlayer Classic, which supports all major IRS forms and schedules for a very affordable price. In the biggest changes for this year, TaxSlayer Classic has dropped one feature (Life Events) and altered a more critical one (the tax return review). The site provides a competent outline for common Form 1040-related topics and a helpful, searchable database of help files, as well as guidance sprinkled throughout. Still, it's not as intuitive or user-friendly as our Editors' Choice pick, TurboTax Deluxe.
Pricing and Versions
TaxSlayer is available in four different versions. Simply Free is, well, free for both federal and state returns for 1040EZ filers. Classic ($17 for federal returns and $22 per state) adds support for all major IRS forms and schedules. Additionally, it imports W-2 data from payroll providers and pulls key information in from the previous year's file. TaxSlayer Premium includes all the features from Classic and adds enhanced support options and audit assistance for $35 for federal returns and $22 per state. The new version in the lineup is Self-Employed, whose $55 price tag includes state filing.
Those are attractive prices, but it's tough to compete on price alone in the tax field, especially when Credit Karma Tax offers a service that handles all IRS forms and schedules—and state returns—for free, although its help system is less developed than TaxSlayer's. FreeTax USA Deluxe also offers comprehensive topic support and good help tools on the cheap; it costs only $6.99 for federal and $12.95 for each state return.
Tax in the Cloud
Regardless of the tax preparation service you choose, you provide the same information you would if you were filing on paper or in a tax preparer's office. Online tax prep is something of a hybrid of those two methods; it's basically a very lengthy question-and-answer session. Using a wizard-like tool, it guides you through all the issues pertinent to your financial situation. Sometimes, you respond with numbers, words, or phrases, although it often only requires you to select from a list of options. The software then performs any necessary calculations and fills in your answers on the correct forms and schedules.
Some services allow experienced tax filers to select the tax topics they know you need to complete and skip the step-by-step wizard. Whichever method you choose (TaxSlayer offers both, as I'll explain), these services offer numerous forms of help along the way, including links to more thorough explanations and voluminous help databases. Some also provide personalized help via chat, email, or phone. After you enter all the required data, these sites perform a final review and look for errors and omissions in your return. Once you make these corrections, you can enter payment information to cover that site's costs and file your return.
Building Your File
Once you choose a version of TaxSlayer, you set up an account by creating a username and password. If you filed your 2016 return with TaxSlayer, the site imports key information, which saves a lot of time and helps to ensure accuracy (assuming you got it right last time, of course). Otherwise, TaxSlayer Classic asks you to import or enter the data from your W-2, so it can pull out personal details directly. You can also import PDF files prepared by competitors for the 2016 tax year.
TaxSlayer Classic lets you simply select the forms and schedules you need to complete, with a process called Quick File. You enter a keyword or the title of a form or schedule, and it populates a drop-down list with one or more relevant entries. I had better results when I searched using a keyword rather than for specific form or schedule names. The site then focuses on those specific topics, though you still have the opportunity to take care of other tax-related issues.
If you skip that option, TaxSlayer presents you with the more traditional data-entry method offered by many competing tax sites. At the beginning of the first section (Your Income), you can either choose Guide Me, for an interview-style Q&A, or Enter Myself, which lets you manually select the topics you need to complete. If you go with the latter option, the site displays a list of all income topics it covers (other areas of the site work similarly). Each topic initially shows a Begin button to the right, but this switches to an Edit button after you make any changes.
Lots of Clicking
TaxSlayer Classic displays a vertical toolbar on the left that breaks down the site into its primary sections, like Federal, Health Insurance, and State. It doesn't, however go into any deeper detail (except for some submenus under Federal). To see what types of topics are covered under a header, you have to click the Enter Myself button. Unfortunately, this is the only way to see a navigational outline such as that offered by TaxAct Online Plus. Other than the toolbar, TaxSlayer Classic doesn't use the outer edges of the screen for anything else beyond a real-time number representing your current tax obligation in the upper right, along with a link to the Help functions.
A site wizard walks you through the service's sections, for both the Guide Me and Enter Myself options. Most navigation is simple; you use buttons to either advance to the next screen or go back to the previous one. A few screens offer a Cancel or Delete or Clear option, which is unusual and can be a bit confusing.
The site executes its two primary navigation options just fine, for the most part. If you click the Guide Me button at the beginning of a section, you move through the site more slowly, since it asks you about every tax issue. Some of your answers prompt TaxSlayer Classic to either ask for additional details or move on to the next topic. Select Enter Myself, and the aforementioned list of topics and forms in that area (such as Wages and Salaries, Form 1099-Misc., Capital Gains and Losses) opens. When you finish a topic, TaxSlayer takes you back to the original list, and from there you can advance to the next one.
Once you complete all the federal topics, TaxSlayer Classic transfers the relevant information to your state tax return if you need to file one, much like its competitors do. It uses similar methods to help you complete your state return. The overall user experience could still use some refinement. It's not as clear, concise, friendly, or elegant as TurboTax Deluxe.
Good Help, Bad Help
If your income tax return is uncomplicated, you can probably get through the filing process without a lot of assistance. But TaxSlayer Classic supports all of the major IRS forms and schedules, so its users are likely to need some guidance along the way. The site does offer phone and email help, but those avenues should really be last resorts for tax filers. It's usually faster to consult educational materials that are right at hand, and providing them in an easy-to-understand format is one of the main jobs of tax software.
The built-in help on TaxSlayer's interrogatory pages is limited in scope and in the number of articles. Sites like H&R Block Deluxe and TurboTax Deluxe provide thorough explanations of tax topics and required information directly on the page. Click on hyperlinked terms in the text, and small windows pop out with deeper detail. TaxAct Online Plus displays context-sensitive topics in the right vertical pane.
TaxSlayer does some of those things. For example, you can sometimes click on a Learn More link that opens explanatory text in a left vertical pane. This help panel usually displays a clear explanation of the topic and tells you where to enter your information on the site. It may also direct you to an IRS publication, which is not a very elegant solution. H&R Block also does this in some cases. Taxpayers use tax prep websites so they don't have to deal with complex IRS language. A small yellow arrow next to a statement or question indicates that there is video help available.
TaxSlayer does have some very good help articles in its searchable knowledge base. This compendium of information, though, doesn't automatically open to the current topic, as it does in TaxAct Online Plus. For example, while working on the expense section of the Schedule C, I wanted to know exactly what constitutes "supplies." I tried searching for that, as well as the phrase, "office supplies," but didn't get any related hits. Instead, the site directed me to content about topics like filing status and selling a home. Other times, it worked fine, such as when I searched for the Educator Expense deduction.
The expertise that TaxSlayer Classic displays in its help articles isn't exposed where you need it most—when you encounter a phrase or question that you don't understand. TaxSlayer would also benefit from more guidance on the interview screens themselves. You can often find what you're looking for, but the best services put the information right there on the page. Overall, TaxSlayer needs to integrate more on-the-fly advice, especially for sections that deal with complicated and potentially unfamiliar issues like self-employment and capital gains.
After you complete all of the screens that apply to you, TaxSlayer presents a helpful summary screen that displays the site's main topics, along with the dollar total for each entry. Clicking on one takes you to the beginning of the relevant section, where you can edit or delete any data.
Our experience with the site's review tool, though, has changed for the worse. Although I did encounter a page titled, "Warnings Concerning Your Return" on my first time around, it didn't offer links to fix the highlighted problems. Additionally, I was unable to find that screen again at a later point, even though my test return still had errors.
Some Progress, Room for More
If you used TaxSlayer last year and were pleased with it, you should like this year's version. You can still complete a complex return, though you may have to spend a lot of time searching for the help you need. Its price tag is a lot lower than that of our Editors' Choice winner, TurboTax Deluxe, and its user interface and navigation tools should get you through the IRS Form 1040 and its assorted schedules without an issue. That said, TurboTax Deluxe offers an exceptional, state-of-the-art user experience, backed up by some of the best guidance in the field.
About the Author
Kathy Yakal has been annoying computer magazine editors since 1983, when she got her first technology writing job because she tagged along with her ex-husband on a job interview. She started freelancing and specializing in financial applications when PCs became financial tools for consumers and small businesses (after a stint at a high-end accounti… See Full Bio
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