H&R Block At Home Online Premium Tax Preparation Review

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  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Design
      • 9
      • Performance
      • 7
      • Total Score:
      • 8.00
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Intuitive interface
    • Keeps data entry simple
    • Access from any browser
  • Cons

    • Error correction is clumsy
    • Tech support is slow
    • Advanced deductions confusing

Quick Take

OK for seasoned tax filers; rookies will conspicuously need an H&R Block pro's help.


By Jay Garmon

H&R Block is perhaps the leading name brand in U.S. consumer tax preparation services, but does their online H&R Block At Home (formerly known as TaxCut) software live up to their in-person reputation? We break it down in this review.

First, a word about my tax return, which I will be using to test-run H&R Block At Home and a few other tax preparation Web apps. In 2009, I received unemployment pay, did freelance work, started a new job for an out-of-state employer, paid down a student loan, had a child in daycare, bought one house and sold another, and maintained a home office as a primary workplace. In short, mine is not a simple tax profile and, if these tax apps can handle what I throw at them without making me want to tear my eyeballs out, these programs should be able to stand up to the typical taxpayer pretty easily. So, let’s see how H&R Block At Home fares.

GETTING STARTED

H&R Block At Home Online Premium create accountH&R Block At Home is actually two products, a downloadable program and an online version. I tested the highest service tier of the online edition of their formerly-known-as-TaxCut software: H&R Block At Home Online Premium, which retails for $49.95 for calculating a federal return (state filing fees are not obvious, but do vary by state; I filed in Kentucky). The main product page defaults to the downloadable versions, which cost about $10 more on average than the Web versions.

Technically, you can use H&R Block At Home Online for free, and without creating an account. You don’t pay until (and unless) you e-file or print out a return, though any data you enter is “trapped” if you don’t cough up the fee. By the same token, you can’t file or print your return without eventually creating an account and, worse, you can’t save any of your in-progress work without an account. The greatest advantage of the online version is that you can pick up where you left off from any computer, so if you need to head to the office and grab some data or talk to your payroll department, you can just log in on your work PC and resume your return.

INTERFACE AND EASE OF USE

H&R Block At Home Online Premium start screenH&R Block At Home has a very clean, simple interface. The entire process is referred to as an Interview — just like you were working with an H&R Block tax preparer in person — and consists largely of a series of questions. In the top right corner of your screen is a running tally of your tax return (or tax debt, if you owe) both for your federal and state returns.

The basic goal of any tax program is to help you list out your income, deductions and credits in an easy-to-understand manner. For basic tasks like entering W-2s and 1099s, H&R Block At Home does a fine job. In fact, the W-2 entry form is extremely intuitive, so for those of you that simply had a conventional job, H&R Block At Home makes tax preparation almost painless. Moreover, H&R Block only “unlocks” certain data entry fields if your Interview responses prompt the program to do so. Thus, if you don’t have any dependents, you won’t have to deal with the childcare tax credit form fields. You can also jump back and forth to any point in the Interview using the Take Me To button at the top of the screen. This reveals the outline of your Interview and lets you surf to any section and edit it at will.

This simplification, however, is not without its faults. H&R Block At Home questioned me about my home office early in the Interview as part of my freelance business. Calculating the value of that home office required entering some data about my mortgage and utility bills. The program promised to remember those values later on when I discussed my home mortgage deduction. Unfortunately, when I came to the home mortgage section later on, the program did a very poor job of communicating what had been carried over and what I needed to reenter. The fact that I had two mortgages — from buying and selling a house — further complicated this issue.

H&R Block At Home Online Premium database crashAll of this I could somewhat forgive, except that when I arrived at the mortgage calculation section, H&R Block At Home provided no link back to the home office section. I had to surf the Interview outline. Moreover, the outline didn’t tell me exactly which subsection I had to unlock — remember, the Interview questionnaire had done this for me, previously — so I had to hunt for the data and “open” various section until I found the right one. This was very inconvenient. I actually clicked back and forth enough that I crashed the database connection and had to restart my browser. Thankfully, the system preserved all my data entries, but this left me with a horrible “it’s all been lost” feeling for a couple of minutes.

I actually considered using the free Ask A Tax Preparer link that H&R Block offers, except that it could have been a business day or more to get an answer to what was really a technical, not a tax, question. I did better surfing Google for info, and found that mine were not uncommon problems with TaxCut (as most folks still call it). The same held true of form sections I didn’t understand; Google was more helpful translating tax terms like “Less Other Cafe 125” than H&R Block’s pop-up help windows.

OVERALL EFFECTIVENESS

In total, it took me about four hours to prepare my tax returns, both state (which imported all my federal data directly) and federal, though more than half that was me poring through personal documents trying to find utility records or home insurance premiums I didn’t know I needed. The actual data entry and Interview time was perhaps 90 minutes.

The program runs its own error check, and that’s when it was finally able to tell me — at the end — that I had double-listed my mortgage interest thanks to the confusing home office-versus-mortgage sections. But again, the program didn’t link to the relevant sections I needed to fix; I had to hunt them down using the outline. The error-checker also didn’t notice that I’d failed to enter my state tax withholding from my W-2, and I only caught the error after suspecting that I owed far too much tax on my state return. Again, I had to hunt down the relevant section on the outline and divine that I had left W-2 Box 17 blank.

CONCLUSION

H&R Block At Home Online Premium decided that I was owed $944 from the feds, and I owed $167 to the Commonwealth of Kentucky. For the privilege of finding that out, I owed H&R Block $49.95 for my federal return and $29.95 for my state return. For an additional $99.95, I could have a human tax preparer review my return before filing, which would seem to defeat the purpose of the hours of work I’d just done. If I wanted to pay somebody for tax assistance, I’d have had them do all this data entry for me.

Overall, H&R Block has a very clean, friendly interface, but it doesn’t do a great job of helping you correct mistakes — including the mistakes it finds for you. The Interview system keeps data entry to a minimum, but gets in your way if you have to go back and change your entries. Bottom line: H&R Block At Home is great for people who enter their tax information right the first time, but tends to sputter if you need to make corrections. If you have to itemize a large number of deductions or have a slightly more complicated than average tax profile, H&R Block won’t get in your way, but won’t explain itself extremely well, either. But then, H&R Block would rather you pay their tax preparers for the hard stuff, anyway.

You can also check out our Buyer’s Guide to find the best tax preparation software for you.

PROS

  • Intuitive interface
  • Keeps data entry simple
  • Access from any browser

CONS

  • Error correction is clumsy
  • Tech support is slow
  • Advanced deductions confusing



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