If your tax affairs are a recurring nightmare, a computer might be the answer. Niall McKay road-tests the software on offer

T he mere thought of taxation can strike fear into the bravest people. But for the 9 million Britons who fill in tax returns every year there is no option. The Inland Revenue has yet to allow fear as a mitigating circumstance.

However, help is at hand. You could buy one of the growing number of personal computer tax programmes on the market. And if you are still struggling with your 11-page 1995 tax return it could be just the answer.

There is a snag, of course. You will need access to a PC. But there is no need to be an expert. Anybody comfortable with the Microsoft word processor will have little difficulty with the programmes.

While there is a plethora of programmes available to professional advisers, only three are aimed at the home market - QuickTax from the US software giant Intuit, TaxCalc from the Consumers Association's Which? magazine and, for more sophisticated tax matters, there is Taxability Pro from Digita.

All three programmes mimic the current year's tax return, offering step- by-step on-screen assistance.

With QuickTax all the user has to do is answer a series of questions. For instance, the programme will ask if the user is single, married, widowed or divorced. If the answer is married, the programme will ask for the number of dependants and so on.

When the questionnaire is completed the programme will calculate the amount of tax owed. The user can then print off the forms, sign it and post it to the Inland Revenue.

QuickTax is the most highly regarded of the three programmes. Its ability to question the users makes the process relatively easy to understand. The user can also input current earnings information into a spreadsheet, then at the end of the year the information will be automatically transferred to the new tax return.

TaxCale offers a more basic service and includes copies of all the Inland Revenue's advice pamphlets. The programme also offers an interview-style questionnaire.

Digita's Taxability Pro is really aimed at the professional user, and priced accordingly. But it can be useful to the private investor, providing a step-by-step guide to the appeals procedure and tax repayments as well as the basic tax return. The programme includes a How do I? command, which helps the user to find help on particular topics. All these programmes will prove even more useful in 1997 when self-assessment comes into force. This means that non-PAYE taxpayers and employees with more complicated tax affairs will be responsible for calculating their own tax.

Spot checks will be carried out and anyone found to be deliberately furnishing the Revenue with the wrong details will be prosecuted.

The Revenue will also be introducing the electronic lodgement service (ELS) which means that tax returns will be lodged via electronic mail to the Revenue's computer.

ELS is likely to follow similar models in the US, Canada and Australia, where agents are appointed to transmit the return on behalf of their customers.

But taxpayers will not be allowed to transmit tax returns over the Internet as it is seen as dangerously insecure. Instead the agents may be the software providers, such as Intuit, as in the US, or photocopy centres as in Australia. The UK accountancy firms have also been testing new systems.

Tax software could prove a useful investment. But be warned. These programmes do not have the ability to make complex tax assessments and it would be easy to pay too much or too little tax.

QuickTax from Intuit is priced at pounds 50 plus VAT or pounds 30 plus VAT for an upgrade. The programme consists of two parts, Tax Planner and Tax Return.

Tax Planner allows the user to plan next year's tax return The interview- style questionnaire allow users to break down questions that they do not understand, and to go back and amend information at any time. QuickTax is available from most large computer retail providers.

Taxability Pro from Digita costs pounds 299 plus pounds 260 for maintenance plus VAT. It is a sophisticated tax planning tool and is really aimed at the professional adviser. But it is useful to those who have to calculate tax on investment portfolios. The product is available from software resellers or directly from Digita on 01395-270273.

TaxCalc is priced at pounds 31 plus VAT to members of the Consumers Association and pounds 44.99 for non-members. Easy to use, the software has some flaws, which will be ironed out by the next release.

It is available from Which? (0171 830 6000).

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