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GUIDE-BLOG: A non-geeky guide to choosing tax practice software. By Nichola Ross Martin

2nd Mar 2007
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Is it a natural reflex, or a sad fact of evolution? The moment someone starts talking “IT”, my eyes glaze over and I’m overwhelmed by the urge to hibernate. I’m not unappreciative of the wonders of information technology, it's just more a case of preferring driving to analysing the running gear.

Using many different types of software in practice over the years I have to admit that recently I’ve been trying to get on with HMRC’s tax software - all in the spirit of journalistic research, you see. Like many of you out there who do the same, it is not merely a matter of altruism, it is on the basis that it is “there” and it is free, and it should, after all, work.

I am a dab hand at using HMRC’s PAYE software (it is strangely satisfying entering payroll details when racked with insomnia). This year, I also managed to get the hang of the Companies House online filing system for small abbreviated accounts, but all things considered, I am running out of meaningful things to do at 5am after the events of this January. It was not a good month for me and HMRC’s SA software. I got thoroughly unstuck, and it got, well, thoroughly stuck. Not because it had changed or had become more tricky or anything you could actually understand or write about, but just due to the high user demand at certain times that made it uncompromisingly, unbearably slow, and to can it all, prone to freezing up. I fared even worse with CTSA online – two hours not to finish three basic returns.

Now, time is always an extremely valuable commodity as you get older, and not more so than to an accountant when filing deadlines are looming. I probably wasted several days of it in faffing around with HMRC’s online services this year. As a direct result I have made up my mind that I am giving up – and not just for Lent. No, I have resolved to go and buy third party software so that in 2007/08 I will be able to file returns as I like it – as and when it suits me, with little ado about anything, because there will be nothing to delay me, or annoy me or anything else like that, at all, ever.

Pondering where to start
I can see from postings on Any Answers and the Memberblog that I’m not the only one out there who’s struggling. There seem to be a huge number of products in the market place and judging by comments, the reviews, the shoot-outs and the surveys, most tax software seems well up to the task in hand. All in all there are a lot of “main players” and they all have a good fan base. The £99 to £1,500 p.a question is which one is going to be right for me and why.

It seems that it is actually not too difficult to narrow it down (initially), as there is a fairly major choice to make early on: do you go for some kind of integrated practice software (think: linking modes that all interlink around a central database) or one that will integrate if you want to do that in the future (think, no dream of: “intelligent” modules) or, whether you are happy to run lots of different software and so settle for the mere necessities like SA and CTSA tax software within a tightly controlled budget. Maybe, in this bracket, you can push out the boat (beyond the first buoy) and go for something that is a little bit more expensive but still a “stand-alone”.

I like to call these by the generic name of WYSIWYG meaning that “you get a tax return on screen and then you fill it in”. Literally: “what you see is what you get”, and more certainly a cheaper package than anything with any “module things.”

DO NOTE HERE: WYSIWYG does not normally mean what I say it does here, but as I say this is “non-geek”, so this is life, as we must appreciate it in this article, at least and please geeks, do not pick me up on this minor faux pas.

So, to re-cap, and possibly, really irritate some people too, my gut reaction is that you will save yourself a massive amount of time (and that also means money) if you understand that the choice of software that you ultimately make is not down to anything other than your own mindset. Simply put, do you:

  • “Dream Big”?
  • Have plans to “Grow Your Practice”?
  • Have a healthy urge for an “Easier and Simpler Life”?

If you answer “Yes” to any of these, just move on and start looking at integrated practice software. I have no doubt that it will change, new companies will enter the market and every year something “ground breaking” will appear, but it is a bit like alternative energy sources, you could be hanging around and waiting for years…and years….so invest now and get on the ladder, and above all, move on.

The alternative choice is just as good, this is all “horses for courses”, after all.

Why spend lots of money integrating software when you don’t need to? If you can manage with spreadsheets, email, and the odd database, you may be able to create all you need. What You See Is What You Get solves many matters, but if you have an eye on things financial, ease of use, size of practice and desire to keep on going in the way that you like to keep on going it may be better to just say “Hang it, I want to run my practice comfortably with some basic, no frills, functional software”. WYSIWYG is pretty stuff, and I am not discounting it by any means.

In the following weeks, I look at the options. I have a good idea what I want, I am going to look at end reports, extra functions, tips along the way, and work out the cost. Here's what I cover:


Replies (26)

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By petersaxton
09th Mar 2007 17:27

reply to Bharat Hathi
I have compared it with others both price wise and free trials but found keytime to be quite good. Their help desk will return your call quite promptly and if you need help they are very good.

The only thing it does not do (that i know of) is print to a pdf file but we scan our tax returns in after client signs them to our paperless office!

Can't you install Adobe Acrobat or CutePDF and print to that using any program even Keytime?

The other thing which they have recently introduced is that you cannot access previous years returns if you do not renew their licence (which i think is a bit off - but i think every body is doing this)

If you have a pdf it would be a lot simpler if you asked your client to email their consent. HMRC don't require a signature.

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By listerramjet
06th Mar 2007 09:08

healthy competition is good!
I have seen Digita in use and listened to comments of users, and it is actually very good, but it is surely good that there is a lot of choice, and that users are prepared to comment on here in positive terms about that choice.

I also think it is good that typical users are not interested in the underlying technology, but rather are interested in functionality and useability. IMO that is the way it should be.

But of course if you are looking at this strategically then an understanding of technological issues is important - which is another reason why AW can add value, in helping the uninitiated to see through the puff and spin of the suppliers.

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By drumtech
02nd Mar 2007 14:07

Why not WYSIWYG and "value for money, powerful and easy-to-use"?

I know that first up doesn't always win the day, but I challenge you to find better tax compliance software PLUS than our Tax Assistant from Drummohr Technology Limited.

It is totally mature and comprehensive, backed up by the only 100% rating in the recent ICAEW survey.

Swords are drawn!

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By CJMaslen
02nd Mar 2007 14:19

Practice Software
As a happy Drummohr user, I am pleased to support Stuart Ritchie's comment.

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By srbmsas
02nd Mar 2007 14:44

Tax Guide Comment
This was just the ticket for a Friday -
We have spent a good deal of this week, evaluating the options, and the decision is..........

No that would be telling before all options have been weighed up; we look forward to the articles though; and the most expensive is not always the best!
Just for the record, we have tested PTP V Drummohr V Forbes. The trouble is that they all do something slightly different, but if you try to replicate a sole trader/partnership and Limited Company, then you should cover most of the "fun" bits.

Any advise on the software and capital allowances sections would be gratefully received, by us.

It must be better than looking at the hour glass/rejected on the HMRC Website in any case.

Kind regards,


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By carnmores
02nd Mar 2007 15:00

my thoughts
i have used 3 methods of e filing over the last 2 years ... dont ask

HMRC very basic but it works tho it doesnt do capital gains or foreign income for example. i agree with you about CTSA it can be a real devil to get right and i too spent hours getting some right!

PTP a great bit of software and excellent value but i have some reservations, printing returns backing up inabiity to see the previous years business accounts without changing years and others but it is easy to use and desreves the plaudits

DIGITA this really is a class act it does everything the others do and more and dare i say it possibly too much for a small firm but those management tools are great, i cant remeber the last time i was stumped by it and of course it is now part of an integrated solution (as is PTP) i will be filing all next years with Digita. Co Tax solution is also really easy to use, and i use the deferred tax module, though thro ignorance i dont always now what i am doing.

i have also looked at other cheap packages and they all get you they mostly seem to have been designed with indivuals in mind and the pro / bureau bit tacked on after still great value to be found there.

FORBES and DRUMMHOR also get great praise from their users. changing or using more than one package is certainly the best way of finding your favourite.
that is why i do not like the surveys that says X or Y is the best because it is based on users opinion on a non comparitive basis.

i would like to see your comments defined in 2 ways, tho it may not be possible - 1. as a stand alone package and 2. as part of an integarted solution. this i know is difficult beacuse firms have different priorities.

one other thing i wanted to ask was when in the future it is compulsory to file on line then surely they must provide software to cover all matters

on company matters we do find the web filing at companies house a doddle, we also used DIGITA as well and i was not as enamoured with that as with TAXABILITY PRO , but we will be going back to it as we need the integtation. of course we are not comparing like with like as COSEC does lots of other wonderful things other than online filing and some silly things and i do appreciate that the software houses are at the mercy of CH dictats.

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02nd Mar 2007 15:51

I have a small practice submitting over 450 individual, partnership, trust and CT600 self assessment tax returns per annum. I can thoroughly recommend Drummohr's Tax Assistant software, having used it now for 8 years.
We find the software so simple to use, and 100% of our 2005/06 returns were submitted via FBI Courier the vast majority of which were submitted in less than 2 minutes, even on 31/1/07!
The software is fully comprehensive, and we have not come across any situation yet that is not catered for. All Capital Gains are fully calculated with indexation and taper relief, as are share options, top slicing relief on life policy encashments, age relief, capital allowances, etc. There is a facility to import accounts from accounts production software. We use Eureka.
We have the facility to submit attachments such as accounts with CT600's.
The only limitation is that imposed by the Revenue, such as rebasing the financial year end for sole traders or partners. The software will automatically calculate the utilisation of overlap relief by creating 2 self employment or partnership returns, but the Revenue's computer cannot accept this. The work around is to prepare one return for the later period, enter the earlier year's profit in box 3.77 and attach the accounts, computation and claim for capital allowances as a separate document. The last return with rebasing I submitted produced a repayment for my client of over £6,000 in 3 days!
What is more the software is quite inexpensive and has excellent technical assistance on the very rare occasion that it is required. Your computer can be set to automatically receive the latest updates. 2007 returns have just been made available.
Why use anything else?

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By matthews001
02nd Mar 2007 14:38

Looking for the simplest Software Package for SA Returns
I shall be interested to read your views! I am an extreme "luddite" having just about mastered the basics of Word/Excel/E mail etc, and am still completing SA Tax Returns manually. I have been doing this for many years, and many of my simple ones I can do much quicker than inputting on a Software programme. I work for myself, have 100 odd clients, and shall be looking for the simplest Software programme to meet my needs at a reasonable cost.

Roger Matthews

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By egbell
08th Mar 2007 13:58

Tax packages
I agree that you do not need an all-in-one system,with the ususal extortionate cost Simple SA,CT,accounts & payroll programs are quite adequate & inexpensive.I have got all of these for the vast sum of £520 incl VAT.Digita offered me less than this for over £600!Drummohr appears to be £475 + VAT for the SA program alone.I do not want to squander my precious money,nor charge my clients higher fees just because I have.This is a profession that is supposed to be cost-conscious.I have found Andica at £117.50 perfectly satisfactory & value for money at the price. It does lack SA800,but as I have only 6 partnerships,this is not a major problem.

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Stephen Quay
By squay
04th Mar 2007 23:06

I am a sole practitioner with just under 100 clients - some companies and partnerships but the majority are sole traders and personal tax clients. I have used Digita Taxability Pro for many years and for the last two or three years I included CoTaxPro, AccountsPro anjd CoSecPro. Integration is reasonable but will be better when their practice management application is released later this year. The software is very good and easy to use.

This is my single largest cost during the year next to my premises but it saves me so much time I couldn't imagine being without it.. Online filing of all tax returns was a breeze this year with no rejections. With different types of clients in differing quantities I like the fact I can licence the applications accordingly, then upgrade when numbers increase as required. Thoroughly recommended.

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By petersaxton
02nd Mar 2007 17:45

I have found that Taxability Pro from Digita is very easy to use for a sole practitioner. The tracking of tax return progress would also be very useful for the bigger practices. I like how responsive Digita is to suggestions for improving the software as well as the integration with their accounts package. I'm looking forward to their practice management modules which are available separately so firms only have to use the modules they need.

The only problem I had with the software was when I had to prepare and submit a tax return with the client sat watching me. He could see how quickly it could be done in comparison to what he was paying!

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By vmahyde
04th Mar 2007 13:24

I have used the trial version of Digita Taxability Pro - when you express and interest in their products they give you an internet guided tour and trial version of all their software WITH the ability to produce a live SA Tax return. How generous!! Really good software and I am planning on buying it. As my practice grows I will go with Digita.

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By drumtech
06th Mar 2007 09:58

Constructive criticism

"when and if you have an accounts package and co sec option then you can start blowing your trumpet a bit louder."

The commercial explanation is that Drummohr doesn't need an accounts package; our customers are perfectly happy to use the accounts package of THEIR choice and integrate with Tax Assistant.

The co sec product is perhaps just a fancy add-on; we have never been asked if we provide this to my knowledge.

We decided some time ago that the payroll market was not for us; there were already a multitude of providers.

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By remhonps
06th Mar 2007 13:15

Non-elegant solutions can be better than bells and whistles ...
Remaining with Tax Assistant for tax, VT for accounts, ACT v6 for database in conjunction with Office XP for client management recently supported by integrated archiving and paper management using Scanworx INVU offered us all the benefits of practice management software with no upheaval and only a short paperless learning curve.

Why throw the baby out with the bathwater with expensive all bells and whistle solutions when practical integrated solutions with short learning curves exist ?

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By RJ&Co
08th Mar 2007 15:33

+1 for Drummohr.
Another vote for Drummohr, especially for the smaller practice. The WYSIWIG aspect is what makes it so easy to use. In terms of price, the basic package includes partnership returns, r40's and (I think) basic corporation tax return, (which includes tax calculation but no extra schedules.)

For the main returns, what you get is a straightforward slightly stylised version of the form you are filling in right there in front of you, with simple tab to tab navigation from one page to another. A small graphic of a pad and pencil sits next to the boxes where you need a backup schedule, - click it and you are straight into the schedule. Could not be easier if you tried. Print routines are also very straightforward, either print a page, or a whole return, or whatever you like. You can save the whole shebang including FBI authorisation doc and computation as a pdf in one button push, and then e-mail onto the client. You can also print a one (sometimes two!) page total summary of the whole return, which is very handy indeed. This doc is what I get clients to sign as well as box 24.1 because they are then attesting on that page to all entries on the return.

We've been using Drummohr for about five years, and used the FBI courier software for the first time last year, - worked perfectly, and has good management facility, to be able to see whats been logged, whats been sent, what hasn't, etc. I tried about four different programmes when we changed over from Objective Tax, and there was no contest from the point of instant useability. I think you can download a test version from the website.

Incidentally, I have absolutely no connection with the company, just a satisfied customer.

Richard Joseph

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By carnmores
05th Mar 2007 17:59

Stuart - we got your point
and you have a declared vested interest so just leave it like that.

the point you have missed is that it is very difficult to compare packages as firms normally only use one (and dont always see how the choice was made) and they tend to develop an increasing contentment with their choice. in addition after using one package for a while another package will usually present initial difficulties

different firms have different needs so your comment has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

when and if you have an accounts package and co sec option then you can start blowing your trumpet a bit louder.

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By drumtech
05th Mar 2007 12:21

Tax Assistant
Nicki, I don't know about you, but nobody, so far, has convinced me that we do not produce the best-value tax + practice management software in the market.

All right, we do not produce accounts production software, but there is INTEGRATION with Tax Assistant for the vast majority of accounts production software used by accountants.

I would rather hear constructive criticism of tax + practice management software, which is what I understand Nicki is asking for before she makes her decision!

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By kmacd
08th Mar 2007 15:43

Wot no Pertax
No one has mentioned Pertax from MYOB. THis is admittedly more expensive but is far superior to anyhting I have used (comparing Digita, IRIS, Drummohr and currently Taxpoint).
Itis very user friendly and offers the choice between WYSIWYG that Nichola is looking for or menu driven solutions. It comes either as stand alone or as part of a practice management package (although I have no idea how good the "Viztopia" range is).

Just a thought!!

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By daveforbes
08th Mar 2007 16:17

single supplier
I think single integrated solution is the way the market is going. I think implications of the Carter report with regard to XBRL, and the impending joint filing gateway for HMRC and companies house, will require a further tightening of the link between company secretarial, accounts production and tax software. This does not mean the end of the line for tax only suppliers and accounts only suppliers - they just need to all pair up !

As for recommendations online I would always back them up by talking to a statistically valid sample of accountants (i.e. get out your yellow pages !).

I have a vested interest in a software supplier but I do not feel that should preclude me from expressing opinions directly in my own name.

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By ndsellers1
08th Mar 2007 16:32

Does anyone have any experience of using Keytime modules - any comments ?

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By StephenElms
08th Mar 2007 15:05

Interesting article and comments. I went to have a look at the Digita website, possibly interesting products... however there is no mention of price anywhere. Any company that is afraid to show prices is misleading - no good to me then!

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Euan's picture
By Euan MacLennan
08th Mar 2007 15:49

Give it a rest!
I thought that this was just the introduction to a series of articles that Nichola intends to write over the next few weeks. She has not mentioned any individual products yet. Is everybody going to repeat their tub-thumping for their chosen product on every one of the following articles? Why cannot we all just wait to see what she says?

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By cbales
08th Mar 2007 14:51

Don't overlook TaxCalc.

Check it out and you will probably be surprised. With a fully committed crew and an experienced tax practitioner at the helm, this software is both effective and value for money. Support is good.

Comprehensive and user friendly, users have the option to complete forms following a step by step guide or direct onto screen views of the various forms themselves. Online filing using this software is an absolute doddle.

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By BdHathi
09th Mar 2007 16:36

Re Keytime Tax Software
Somebody asked for feedback on Keytime Software

I have been using the Tax Professional and Corp Tax Modules. Both are really good and easy to use and i think good value for money.

You can by the licence in stages ie 1-10 clients, 10-25 etc or something like that. FBI comes as standard and works really well.

I have compared it with others both price wise and free trials but found keytime to be quite good. Their help desk will return your call quite promptly and if you need help they are very good.

The only thing it does not do (that i know of) is print to a pdf file but we scan our tax returns in after client signs them to our paperless office!

The other thing which they have recently introduced is that you cannot access previous years returns if you do not renew their licence (which i think is a bit off - but i think every body is doing this)

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By BdHathi
09th Mar 2007 20:11

Re installing adobe
The way keytime prints is it spools a page at a time to the printer, so if you pdf's it you would get about 20-30 of seperate pdf files which then need to be combined.

it becomes alot of hassel to do this. Any way most of our clients prefere to see their tax return on paper (even though most do not understand them! even after going throug them !!).

So thats why we then print them, get their signiture we have recently gone paperless so we scan them into our document management software before we fine on line.

works well for us.


B Hathi

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By cbales
12th Mar 2007 17:09

TAXCALC includes pdf
TAXCALC creates a printable PDF version of documents, including Tax Returns, which can be saved as pdf files and/or printed using normal printer settings.

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