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Filing online? A guide to the latest tax software

04/02/2013 06:23 EDT | Updated 06/02/2013 05:12 EDT
Tax season can be tough on all of us, no less so for trees. Last year, more than 9.7 million Canadians filed their taxes the old-fashioned way — mailing in ink-and-paper forms — which, according to some very rough math, required introducing some 3,200 trees to the business end of a chainsaw.

But that's an improvement, thanks to the rising popularity of filing taxes electronically, on the 3,300 or so that were turned into T1s for the tax year 2010

Most tax returns are now delivered electronically to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), and it's not hard to see why. Electronic options like EFile and Netfile are fast, secure, more accurate, and refunds can take as little as eight business days with direct deposit.

For a mailed return, you can wait as long as six weeks to get a refund.

The CRA itself is recognizing that fewer people are opting for paper returns. It announced this January that it will no longer mail out paper tax forms unless individuals request them and has cancelled its Telefile service, which allowed taxpayers to file simple tax returns by telephone.

With tax deadlines approaching, a variety of software programs are once again available so Canadians can file electronically. Most cost money, but some are free for those with modest incomes. A few are offered free to everybody.

For the do-it-yourself types, this means using the CRA's Netfile system, a web-based service that allows taxpayers to be their own accountants and file their returns over the internet. (EFile is the internet-based filing system used by professionals who prepare tax returns for a living.)

The CRA received more than five million tax returns through the Netfile system in 2012, an increase of five per cent from the previous year and far more than the 530 who filed this way when the program debuted in 1999.

How to Netfile

Using Netfile used to require a four-digit access code, but this year, the CRA has dropped the codes and only requires you to provide your social insurance number and date of birth.

Armed with those, all you need is a "certified" tax program. The CRA has a list of certified programs on its website, and it will be updated through March as more programs satisfy the certification requirements.

The Netfile service is open from Feb. 11 to Nov. 30 for filing 2012 returns.

Taxpayers have two main options: using software that is loaded onto a computer or mobile device or using interactive web-based programs. Once these programs complete your tax return, you can either file it electronically or print it out and mail by post.

Some programs can be bought in a store and come on a disc that installs the software on your hard drive. Others allow users to download the software directly from the company. Some programs offer both versions.

Often, these programs allow you to prepare multiple returns but tend to be more expensive than the web-based tax programs where users interactively prepare their returns online without downloading the software.

Here's a quick look at the particular bells and whistles of some of the most popular CRA-certified tax-preparation programs for Netfiling.

Installable/downloadable programs

TurboTax

TurboTax, formerly known as QuickTax, is Intuit's popular tax-preparation software. The Standard edition costs $39.99 for eight returns and is meant for relatively simple returns, suitable for those with RRSPs, pensions and children.

The $69.99 Premier version adds features for those with rental or investment income to report. The $99.99 Home and Business edition is mainly for those with business taxes to file.

All of the installable/downloadable versions are for PCs only. If you have a Mac, you'll need an online version (see below).

Intuit also offers a stripped-down iPhone app, SnapTax, for $9.99, which can handle very simple returns for those with no children and who are under age 65.

UFile for Windows

Like TurboTax, UFile uses the interview method to lead users through the tax-preparation process. UFile is installed on your computer (either via download or disc) for $19.99 and allows users to prepare as many as eight returns. It can handle self-employment income, including income from rental properties, and additional returns can be purchased through the company's website.

The Premium edition goes for $29.99, covers up to 16 returns, and is aimed at those with small or home-based businesses.

H&R Block at Home

The Deluxe version of H&R Block at Home allows you to prepare up to 16 tax returns for $29.99.

Like its main competitors, it employs the question-and-answer format and allows you to import your tax data from other software products.

The software can prepare a number of different personal returns, including for those with multiple small businesses, rental properties, commission or foreign income and childcare expenses.

TaxTron

TaxTron uses a step-by-step approach, and its software is available through its website.

Windows users can purchase an individual licence for $12.99 (the Mac version is $19.99) and file one return for a taxpayer with a net income over $31,000 and 19 returns for income under $30,000.

A family licence, which costs $24.99 ($39.99 for Mac), will allow you to prepare and file five returns for earners with a net income over $31,000 and 15 returns for earners with income under $31,000.

FutureTax

This downloadable program charges $5.99 for one return, $7.99 for two returns, $9.99 for 10 returns or $17.99 for 20 returns. It will run on PCs with operating systems going all the way back to Windows 95 but is not available for Macs. It also cannot be used to file Quebec provincial returns.

MyTaxExpress

This downloadable software costs $6.99 for one return and $13.99 for a licence that allows users to prepare up to 10 returns. It's free for families with a total income below $25,000. There is a $5 fee if users want to receive the CD-ROM version of the software. It can't be used to file Quebec provincial returns. For Windows only.

TaxFreeway

TaxFreeway is a downloadable program that costs $9.95 for up to 20 returns (the version for Macs is $14.95). It also offers a "3-in-1" package for $19.95 that allows users to file up to 20 returns using a PC, Mac or iPad. It says it's the only Canadian tax software that allows users to work in interview and form modes simultaneously.

StudioTax

StudioTax is the work of BHOK IT Consulting, a group of software professionals in the Ottawa area. It's free to download and use regardless of income but asks for donations. One caveat: it's Windows only. The company's website says that "hundreds of thousands" of people use its free service.

EasyCTax

EasyCTax, available as both a downloadable program and a web application, costs $9.95 for the first return and $5 for each additional family member. Alternatively, you can pay $24.95 to file as many as 20 returns. The software is available for free if family income is less than $25,000.

Web applications

TurboTax Online

The online version of TurboTax Standard is $17.99 for a single return, which will suffice for typical taxpayers with the usual claims like RRSP deductions, charitable donations and medical expenses.

But the company offers a free version for taxpayers with simple taxes to file. And they mean simple: no RRSPs, no investment income, no charitable donations and no pension or income from tips. There's also a free version for students with gross incomes below $20,000.

A Premier edition for those with investment or rental property income is $32.99 for a single return. A Home and Business edition is also available online for $44.99 per return.

Ufile Online

Ufile's online solution costs $15.95 for the first family member or $24.95 to include a spouse. You can file tax returns for dependent family members for free. All students and families with a total income of less than $20,000 can also file for free.

H&R Block at Home

H&R Block has an online version for those who want to do their own return. H&R Block charges $15.95 for one return and $10 for a second family member. H&R Block also offers its web application at no cost for families whose total income is $20,000 or less.

EachTax

EachTax.com charges $5.99 for the first return and $3.99 for each additional return. Family members of a paying EachTax.com customer who earn less than $25,000 a year can file for free. New customers can file for free, regardless of income. The software cannot calculate Quebec provincial returns.

TaxChopper (formerly CuteTax Online)

TaxChopper costs $9.98 for one return, $15.98 for two returns, $19.98 for three to five returns and $25.98 for six to 15 returns. It's free for single people with incomes below $30,000, couples with incomes below $35,000 and students who spent six months of the tax year enrolled in full-time studies.

WebTax4U.ca

This web application, available from MacroNT Inc., costs $12.99 for the first return and $5.99 for each additional family member. It's free for those with total family incomes below $20,000.

Taxnic

This online program charges $8.99 for the first return, $13.99 for two returns or $18.99 for up to 20 returns. It is free for singles with total income below $20,000 and couples with total income below $25,000.

GenuTax Standard

This web application is available for free, though the developers ask for donations to help cover the costs of testing and licensing. It cannot be used to file Quebec provincial tax forms.

Other options

Finally, time for a quick mention of TaxMan — the work of an opinionated Victoria man who calls himself "the poor man's accountant."

His offering is a "moron-simple" 28,000-line tax software program that uses CRA-approved forms. You can't Netfile this baby — you'll have to print it up and mail it in — but it is free, regardless of the number of returns or income.

TaxMan does, however, accept donations, for those who feel so inclined.

Of course, everyone who uses tax software can always file the old-fashioned way — on paper, via Canada Post. You just do your data entry through the program and then print the results and send them in.

You can also download all the forms you need from the Canada Revenue Agency's website or pick up a tax package at a CRA service kiosk or at the post office and fill everything out (shudder) by hand.

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