The "simplified" 1990 tax laws almost demand a computer. Luckily there are more than a dozen personal tax-preparation programs available to make the ordeal easier.
This week we recommend two programs for the more common DOS-based personal computers: Andrew Tobias' Taxcut and Turbotax.
Both Turbotax ($75), the best-selling tax program in years past, and Taxcut ($89.95), from the same people who produce the popular Managing Your Money personal finance program, are strong enough to handle all but the most complex personal returns, yet gentle enough to comfort the individual taxpayer in this time of trial.
Turbotax is made by Chipsoft Inc. of San Diego, Calif., at (619) 453-8722. Taxcut is made by MECA Software Inc. of Westport, Conn., (203) 222-9150.
Both programs can extract data from Quicken, Managing Your Money and other personal-finance software programs, an ability that simplifies gathering tax data.
And both have tax-planning features that, if used conscientiously, can make next year's tax preparation less taxing. The tax-planning features can also help reduce taxes in 1991.
Both programs are very good, but no one needs two tax programs. In general, Taxcut is the choice for people who are willing to pay a little more for a great deal of advice, explanation and hand-holding, and for those who use Managing Your Money.
Turbotax is slightly leaner and faster, although this year's version has borrowed a lot of Taxcut's "expert system" help and advice features.
Turbotax offers a greater selection of optional state tax programs, at $40 each, for all 44 states that assess taxes. Taxcut, in contrast, has only 10 state modules (Maryland, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia), also $40 each.
Although the program is officially called Andrew Tobias Taxcut, after the financial expert and author who developed Managing Your Money, the real persona behind Taxcut is Daniel Caine.
Caine is a tax lawyer whose original program, Ask Dan About Your Taxes, was acquired by MECA Software, given a face lift and rechristened.
Ask Dan was one of the first popular implementations of expert system technology, which attempts to capture, distill and codify the knowledge and experience of humans for use on a computer.
Now Taxcut has Ask Dan's expert system, which can be summoned at any place in the program to offer advice and guidance.
While Taxcut is the computer equivalent of warm and fuzzy, Turbotax is the equivalent of the half-human Mr. Spock of "Star Trek. "Logical next step" boxes pop up at various points to guide the taxpayer to the proper form or to recommend certain actions.
Both programs have extensive printing features, which produce neat tax forms that the IRS will accept in lieu of official forms.
On dot matrix printers, the returns are plain but still acceptable to the government. However, both programs warn that state tax offices may not accept unofficial returns.