There are numerous tax prep solutions available for those who want a little help filing without having to turn to an actual accountant. Each one has benefits and pitfalls. In the case of CompleteTax, the benefit is that it offers the most options for filing without paying a dime. Of course, you are going to have to sacrifice something, and in this case it's any user-friendly, clear, or detailed instructions.
But more on that shortly. First, there are some important things to note if you're keeping an eye on your wallet. For one, CompleteTax provides three ways to file completely for free. If you end up owing money, have lost your job over the past year, or successfully import a 2009 return from a competitor such as TurboTax or H&R Block, you won't have to pay a dime. CompleteTax also offers a free basic filing option that will support most taxpayers. A Deluxe version ($29.95) adds itemized deduction handling, support for capital gains and losses and dividend income, and a single call to live chat support. The Premium MVP version ($59.95) includes one state filing (normally $29.95) as well as tools for those who are self-employed or have real estate income or losses.
On initial glance, CompleteTax appears clean and user-friendly. The landing page clearly lays out the three prep options, with user ratings for each one and bullet points calling out the major features. Signing up for an account is also quite simple, requiring less than five minutes to complete. (You'll have to accept a standard terms-and-conditions page upon first logging in.)
However, once you start the interview process, things start to get a little tricky. CompleteTax does allow for importing your prior year return from a PDF file, and it also supports W-2 importing from some institutions (our employer is not among them, but then it's not supported by the other tax prep offerings, either). Even if you are unable to directly import anything, the initial info gathering page is straightforward enough.
We ran into our first issue when we got to the page after W-2 inputting and were told that if we entered CASDI (California State Disability Insurance) on the previous page, we had to go back and delete it and then enter it on the current page. This is just one point where we were required to go back and manually delete data; this process would be handled better by addressing issues as they arise (on the page at hand). Not only that, but the breadcrumbs to get us back to the page we needed to edit were not provided, making edits unnecessarily convoluted.
Also, we found that tax situations such as deductions and credits were not always explained in a satisfactory manner. For example, the new jobs credit in the state section had no elaboration and could not be found in the help files. We selected yes, just to see where it would take us, and were taken to a form that helped us deduce that we were not eligible. Then, when we returned to change our answer to "no," the program prompted us to go back to that form and delete all of our data, but without providing a clear way to access the form. This alone is enough to prevent us from properly filing a state return.
Another hassle is the fact that we were required to enter complete information on all the institutions from which we collected savings' interest, such as the name, address, phone number, and federal ID number. Other tax programs allowed us to just enter the institution name and amount.
Finally, there's the overall look-and-feel of CompleteTax. While we're not against having minimal bells-and-whistles in the design of a tax prep program, the interface of this service appears decidedly dated. This isn't a huge deal, though, and we do give CompleteTax some credit for directly linking many tax-related terms throughout the text of the interview. Still, in the end, the service is far more confusing than the offerings from the competition.
For those who could just as easily do their taxes by hand but simply want the convenience of e-filing, CompleteTax could fit the bill. But if you want to save money and still need a little more service and explanation of certain tax rules, TaxAct is a better bet. For personal attention, give H&R Block a shot.