TORONTO — With tax season upon us, some Canadians may be exploring new options for filing their returns this year.
Should you hire an accountant? Or do them yourself on a computer or on paper? Experts say the answer to that question depends on how complicated your financial situation is and how comfortable you are with taking on the task.
Last year, the Canada Revenue Agency received 23.4 million (81 per cent) electronic returns compared with 5.4 million (19 per cent) paper returns. It notes that the number of people filing their personal tax returns electronically, either on their own or via a tax professional, has been steadily increasing over the past five years.
Adriana Harper with H&R Block says Canadians who are looking to save money at tax time can consider using readily available free software.
H&R, which also runs tax clinics across the country, says filers can access its free software either online or download it onto their computers.
The program is mostly recommended for people who only require a bare-bones version of tax software, and those who do not need a lot of guidance in filing their taxes.
"Not all Canadians are going to feel comfortable filing it on their own," said Harper, a digital content official at H&R, who likened using free software to changing a blown tire on your car. Some people know how to do it, but may still want to hire a mechanic anyway to make sure it's done correctly.
A number of other firms also offer free versions, including SimpleTax and TurboTax.
If filing over the computer doesn't appeal to you, filers can still go the free route if they go to a one of the free temporary volunteer-run tax preparation clinics across the country aimed at those with low to moderate incomes. A list of locations is available on the Canada Revenue Ageny website.
"They're just a program that will help you input the data properly, so you may be not making the best decision."
But Dale Romanovsky, a chartered professional accountant, says free tax help and free software can help filers save money but it's really most beneficial for those with simple returns. Those who have more complicated filings — for example, different streams of income, foreign property or a small business — should consider seeking in-person, professional help.
"If their return is pretty simple, (they're) just earning employment income, then the software should be manageable," he said.
"But once you have complexity, investment income, business income — there are a lot of planning opportunities... and decisions that you should be making when doing the return," he said.
"The programs try to help you with that, but they're not a professional. They're just a program that will help you input the data properly, so you may be not making the best decision."
For instance, Romanovsky says accountants can help you look at your current financial situation and what it may be in the upcoming years to determine whether it's more beneficial for you to carry over RRSP room rather than claim it right away. Those with a small businesses may also benefit from a professional who can tell them what expenses they can deduct.
That kind of advice is not as easily accessible through a computer program.
Todd Stanley, the general manager at TurboTax Canada, says the tax filing giant has been offering a free software option for years. Typically, filers may want to try out the free software and then by the next year, may consider paying for a more supported version when their tax situation becomes more complicated, like if they have stocks, mutual funds and rental property.
"We believe in offering customers choice," he said.
Stanley adds that the free versions are more form-based, while the paid versions are more interview-based and take the filer through their taxes step-by-step. Paid software from TurboTax ranges from $14.99 for the basic version — up to four returns — to $45 for a professional version, which includes one-on-one counselling from a tax professional who will review your return once completed.
Last year, 4.5 million returns were filed using TurboTax software, according to the company.