Tax preparation services prepare and file your tax return for you. These services can help avoid the frustrating experience of using DIY tax preparation software. Tax preparation services can e-file your tax returns like tax preparation software can, so the refund time is normally about the same as filing the return yourself.
We looked at several nationwide tax preparation services and found the top contenders. We also explored other options similar to tax preparation services as well as volunteer programs. We looked at pricing, convenience, reputation, and other factors when selecting our choices. Here are our top five tax preparation services.
The 5 Best Tax Preparation Services of 2021
Best Overall: H&R Block
H&R Block has helped its customers prepare tax returns since 1955 and currently operates 11,000 offices. In 2019, H&R Block prepared 23 million tax returns. We ranked H&R Block as the best overall tax preparation service due to their long history, huge location footprint, high customer review ratings, and the fact that the company discloses its base price structure online.
H&R Block can help you file most tax returns; assist with letters from the IRS, IRS audits, bookkeeping, and payroll; and can even help review previous returns to see if you missed any potential refund money. The company offers both in-person service and online tax preparation software. In January 2020, the company began to provide virtual tax preparation services so you can use their assistance without visiting an office.
If you opt for in-person service, you can drop your paperwork off and let the representative contact you when your return is done. You can also choose to sit with the employee as they work on it. After your return is prepared, it can be e-filed just as with tax preparation software.
While H&R Block doesn’t disclose their exact pricing on their website, they do provide a starting point. For example, federal tax returns start at $69, and you will pay an additional $59 for each state return. You’ll also pay for add-on forms for credits or other products based on your unique tax situation.
H&R Block customers give the company 4.4 out of 5 stars based on over 430,000 reviews, with many reviewers stating the employees are knowledgeable and efficient.
Best for Self-Preparation With CPA or EA Assistance: TurboTax
If you want the help of a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) or enrolled agent (EA) without the high fees of a CPA firm, TurboTax can help. TurboTax has helped people file their tax returns for decades and filed 40 million tax returns in 2019. They don’t have local storefronts and instead offer their services online or by selling software in retail stores such as Office Depot. We selected TurboTax as the best self-preparation with CPA or EA assistance tax preparation service because of their options to ask CPAs and EAs questions and review your returns before filing.
While TurboTax is technically tax preparation software, the added access to a CPA or EA makes it feel less daunting. If you run into roadblocks, you can ask for help from an expert. The software shares your computer screen with the experts, which helps them guide you to a solution to your problems.
Their software allows you to file both federal and state income tax returns. Pricing starts at $80 for the most basic returns and goes up to $200 for self-employed returns. State returns cost an extra $45 each. Once you’ve completed your return, you can e-file it as soon as tax filing season is open. You also receive free one-on-one audit guidance from an experienced tax professional if you get audited. The tax professional cannot represent you or provide legal advice, though, so you will likely need a tax attorney.
TurboTax’s CPA- or EA-assisted services received 4.6 out of 5 stars from a total of over 35,000 customer reviews on their website. Some customers praised the patient and helpful experts while others were unhappy with pricing and false advertising regarding free tax preparation software.
Best for Low Income: VITA and TCE Programs
Low-income taxpayers and seniors may qualify to get their tax returns prepared for free through the IRS’s volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) and tax counseling for the elderly (TCE) programs. We chose these programs as the best tax preparation service for low-income taxpayers because it is a 100% free service run by volunteers in your community.
The VITA program has existed for over 50 years and provides free tax help to people with disabilities, a limited English-speaking ability, and those making $56,000 or less per year. The TCE program focuses on those ages 60 or older to help with any pension and retirement-related issues.
Volunteers for these services have to pass tax law training that meets or exceeds standards set by the IRS. The IRS also requires quality review checks for every return prepared at a VITA or TCE site before filing.
You can use this locator tool or call 800-906-9887 to find a local site to visit in person to have your return prepared or to ask questions you may have. The service is free and runs on a volunteer basis, so you may have to wait or schedule an appointment before you can get your tax return prepared. Also, not all locations will offer all services due to volunteers’ availability or the level of expertise needed for your return.
Best for Convenient Locations: Jackson Hewitt
In business for over 35 years, Jackson Hewitt has helped millions of people with their taxes. They currently have nearly 6,000 locations, with 3,000 of those found in Walmart stores. Although Jackson Hewitt doesn’t have the largest location footprint, the fact that half of their offices are found in Walmart, a store where many people already shop, made it our choice for the best tax preparation service for convenient locations.
Jackson Hewitt offers standard tax preparation services for their clients, but services may vary from office to office. Many of their locations are independent franchises not run by the corporate entity. Pricing isn’t standard across the nation, either, so you have to call your local office to get a price quote. Their Walmart-based locations are usually only open during tax season, so you won’t be able to visit them for questions throughout the year. They also have online tax filing software if you want to prepare your return yourself.
Many of their locations are open late or on the weekends to accommodate people’s schedules, and you can send your tax documents virtually, drop off your documents in person, or sit with a tax preparer as they work on your return.
Jackson Hewitt also offers refund advance loans, but these come with high costs and fees, so make sure you weigh the pros and cons before selecting this option. The time it takes to file your return varies on how busy your location is, but once the return is prepared, it can be e-filed quickly.
Trustpilot reviewers rate Jackson Hewitt 3.8 out of 5 stars. Complaints ranged from preparers making errors on returns to getting denied for a refund advance, while others praised the convenience of the Walmart locations and their local preparers.
Best for Complex Returns: A Local Certified Public Accountant (CPA) Firm
Complex tax returns and situations often require expert help. We chose local CPA firms for the best tax preparation service for complex tax returns because they have credentialed experts who have met education requirements and passed the CPA exam, which requires 16 hours of testing.
Each CPA firm has its specialties, but they can help with the majority of tax situations. They’re normally open throughout the year, so unlike other tax preparation services, you can ask questions and get support outside of tax season. They generally offer tax return preparation, tax planning, business advice, bookkeeping, audit assistance, and other accounting-related services. In particular, CPA firms often work well for people that have businesses, rental properties, self-employment income, or more complicated tax situations.
You typically drop your tax documents off with the firm, who then assigns it to a CPA who’ll prepare your return and contact you once it is ready for your review. After you review the return, they can file it on your behalf. You should visit a local CPA firm early during tax season if you want a relatively quick turnaround time. CPA firms often get busier as the tax deadline nears and it may take a few weeks to prepare your return.
Each firm sets its pricing, but this option is often the most expensive. Even so, you’re paying for the verified expertise that the CPA credential comes with. Read CPA firm reviews on Google and verify a CPA’s license before doing business with them. You can search for a local CPA firm using Google or this directory.
What Is a Tax Preparation Service?
Tax preparation services mainly focus on preparing your tax return. Some may also offer tax planning services to help you lower your taxes due in the current and future tax years. They may provide other services such as bookkeeping, auditing, or consulting.
These services should not make promises of a specific refund amount or a guaranteed way to lower the tax you’ll owe. Instead, they should only prepare your tax return based on the factual information you provide.
After completing your return, your preparer should sign the return as a paid preparer. They may also e-file your return for you. You may bring your tax paperwork and sit with the preparer as they work on your tax return. Other offices may allow you to drop off your paperwork and prepare your return for you at a later date. At that time, they call you to go over the return before filing it.
Who Should Use a Tax Preparation Service?
People should use a tax preparation service if they’re uncomfortable filing their tax returns on their own or with tax software. Everyone has a different level of knowledge regarding tax laws, but tax software can help bridge the gap. Tax preparation services offer their expertise combined with a time-saving factor because you don’t have to input the information yourself.
People with more complex situations, including businesses, rental properties, and many tax credits or deductions, may enjoy the expertise of someone that thoroughly understands tax laws. Busy people that are willing to pay to save time may prefer a tax preparation service, too.
In general, tax preparation software will be cheaper than paying a tax preparation service. Both options can handle basic and complex tax situations. If your tax situation is extremely basic and only involves a W-2 and a 1099 form, chances are you could file your tax return on your own with tax software and save money.
How Much Does a Tax Preparation Service Cost?
The cost of a tax preparation service can vary from one company to the next. The VITA program offers free tax preparation help to those that qualify. On the other end of the scale, CPAs likely charge the most for their services, which could run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Some tax preparation services may allow you to pay for their fee out of your refund, but this technically becomes a loan and has other charges included. It is almost always cheapest to pay for services provided in other ways.
How Is a Tax Preparation Service Different From Tax Preparation Software?
A tax preparation service prepares your tax return on your behalf. They sign the tax return as a paid preparer. When you approve the return, they can even file the tax return on your behalf.
Tax preparation software requires you to input the information, which is then transferred to the tax return forms. There is no paid preparer and you are the only person to sign your tax return.
A tax preparation service may give you peace of mind and help you avoid frustration if you’re uncomfortable with your ability to use tax return software or your tax situation is complex.
How We Chose the Best Tax Preparation Services
To choose the best tax preparation services, we looked at nationwide tax preparation firms along with local tax preparers and narrowed our selection down to three national tax preparation chains, the VITA and TCE programs, and TurboTax’s CPA-assisted tax software, as well as local CPA firms.
We chose the best tax preparation services by looking at their services offered, reputation, costs to file a tax return, convenience, and the number of locations. The ones are our list all offered affordable tax preparation services across various locations, employed certified tax preparers, and had good reputations among clients.
H&R Block. "H&R Block Factsheet." Accessed November 17, 2020.
ProPublica. "Inside TurboTax's 20 Year Fight to Stop Americans From Filing Their Taxes for Free." Accessed November 17, 2020.
Trustpilot. "Jackson Hewitt Reviews." Accessed November 17, 2020.