This year, honest, we're going to get organized. We're going to get a head start on preparing our 1991 taxes while we can still do something about them, instead of waiting until after Jan. 1, when it's too late.
The first batch of "head start" tax preparation packages have arrived in stores.
These early-bird programs cannot be used to file returns, because Congress and the Internal Revenue Service are still, shall we say, fine-tuning the laws and forms.
However, the head-start programs are very useful for organizing and forecasting. They can lessen the chance of nasty surprises just before April 15.
People who buy head-start versions of tax programs will receive a free copy of the final "fileable" version in January or February, after Congress has finished the Byzantine process of simplifying the 1991 tax laws.
All they have to do is send in the registration card that comes with the software.
Data entered into the head-start versions can then be transferred to the final version automatically, and the final forms can be printed and either turned over to a human tax preparer or mailed directly to Uncle Sam.
We've seen six early-bird tax programs so far: Andrew Tobias' Taxcut 1040 ($89.95 from MECA Software Inc. of Fairfield, Conn.), Taxcut EZ/A ($29.95, also from MECA), Turbotax for DOS ($79.95 from Chipsoft Inc. of San Diego), J. K. Lasser's Your Income Tax (or "YIT," as the manual calls it, $74.95 from Simon & Schuster Software of New York City), EasyTax ($79.95 from Timeworks Inc. of Northbrook, Ill.) and Personal Tax Edge ($49 from Parsons Technology Inc. of Hiawatha, Iowa).
All are for DOS computers. Windows and Macintosh programs are a little trickier to program, so they will arrive later. Taxcut EZ/A is for people who file the 1040EZ or 1040A forms.
There are a lot of good tax preparation packages, and there will certainly be new ones that warrant investigation. Among DOS programs, though, Taxcut and Turbotax have been the best in recent years, and each appears to be even better for 1991.
Turbotax was one of the first popular personal tax programs for IBM and compatible PCs, but Andrew Tobias' Taxcut blazed past it with new features like an "expert" system and a "shoe box" that makes it easy to enter receipts and other tax effluvia.
The expert behind Taxcut is Dan Caine, a tax specialist who figured out how to make software work a lot like a real accountant, asking questions of the user and offering suggestions on how to concoct the best legal return.
Turbotax, YIT and most of the other tax programs have copied Taxcut's expert and shoe box features, so it's a race again.
The real winners are the users, because competition has pushed all the programs to add more power and features while making the software easier to use.
The best new feature of Taxcut is called the interview, a series of plain English questions that makes it easier to use Taxcut's built-in expert system.
The interview makes sure that all the proper forms are filled out and that all the proper deductions are taken, even for people who are filing a return for the first time.
Turbotax has added a "consult with Turbotax" feature and has expanded its already good help features. Turbotax has the better manual.
In fact, the manual we received for the head-start version of Taxcut 1040 was frustrating because the page numbers listed in the index do not correspond to the page numbers in the manual.
A Taxcut spokesman said only the first 5,000 manuals had the error, but it was a mistake that might cause people to doubt the accuracy of the program. We found no glitches in the Taxcut software, however.
In most states, including Maryland, taxpayers must also file state income tax returns. All the major tax programs offer state tax modules that work with the federal forms.
Turbotax has modules ($39.95 each) for every state that has a personal income tax.
Lasser's YIT offers 23 modules ($29.95 each), but none for Connecticut. Taxcut offers modules ($39.95 each) for the 13 states with the highest number of computer-prepared tax returns.
Most of the tax programs can import data from personal finance programs, such as Quicken, and from spreadsheets. The ease with which they import data depends on which finance package is used, and which tax package.
The big news in Macintosh tax software is that Macintax, the most popular program for the Mac, was acquired this year by Chipsoft Inc., the company that makes Turbotax, the most popular program for DOS computers.
A Chipsoft spokesman said Macintax would look essentially the same, but with the addition of Turbotax's help and advice system. Macintax is expected in December.