Most accountants have stopped worrying about their clients bringing bookkeeping in-house. Even with a client performing their own bookkeeping, there's plenty of work that only an accountant can perform, including making adjusting and closing entries, and producing compilation and review reports.In many firms that prepare tax returns for their clients, write-up software is used in lieu of a trial balance application to prepare the client's data for tax processing. Between these engagements, and the clients who would still prefer that you perform the bookkeeping, there's still plenty of need for a good write-up application in many practices.

At its core, write-up is simply a general ledger application with some additional functionality built in to make it more suitable for use in an accounting practice. One such feature is the ability to easily set up a new client, either by using a boilerplate chart of accounts or, if another client is similar in makeup and operation, by copying that other client's set-up to create a new client.

Write-up software, in general, also has more extensive reporting capabilities than many standard GL applications. This is often accomplished by adding reports such as a working trial balance to ease the task of preparing adjusting and closing entries, and beefing up the custom report and financial statement-generation capabilities.

Another area where a write-up package often differs from a plain-vanilla general ledger system is in its import and export capabilities. Because an accountant will often need to work with books and records generated by a variety of different vendors' applications being used at client sites, having the ability to import from many different software packages can save considerable time and effort, as well as improve the accuracy of the transferred data. Good export functionality is important when an accountant needs to perform an analysis that is not provided by the accounting software and must be completed in Excel or another application, such as budgeting software.

After-the-fact payroll is another hallmark of many write-up packages. With an accountant often responsible for computing required payroll tax depositories, having the ability to reconstruct the payroll is a handy thing. This feature is less of a benefit when the majority of a practice's clients are using a payroll service bureau or in-house application that can provide these depository amounts.

Finally, many write-up packages incorporate depreciation/amortization capabilities or link into a fixed assets application to perform these computations. And suites of accountant-oriented applications, with write-up one of the components of the suite, are becoming increasingly popular.

I'LL TAKE ONE OF THOSE ...

While the markets for many applications are shrinking and consolidating, the number of write-up applications available to accountants is remaining fairly consistent. This provides accountants with a good choice in vendors and solutions. Depending upon your client's needs, you might be best off with a write-up package that offers a client "checkbook" application, where the client can enter disbursements and receipts. If you have a number of a specific vendor's accountant-oriented applications, staying within the suite for write-up provides easy data transfer. No one package does it all, but by knowing what you and your clients need, you can come pretty close.

We tested a half-dozen write-up packages to give you a good idea of what you can expect. The write-up applications from ATX and TaxWise, both members of the recently formed CCH Small Firm Services Division, are identical in terms of functionality and the underlying engine. They have different user interfaces and interfaces with tax prep software, so we reviewed only one of the two versions.

None of the applications that we tested requires anything esoteric in the way of hardware. Pretty much any Pentium 4 or Core Duo-type PC should suffice. With some of the applications tested, an Internet connection is either necessary or helpful, and the write-up packages from two of the vendors tested came with floppy diskettes that contained the license keys, so you might need an internal or USB external floppy drive if you don't want to download the keys over the Internet.

ACCOUNTING RELIEF

AccountantsWorld was one of the first vendors to take advantage of the Internet as an alternative to providing in-house software. In the years since its initial offering as an application service provider, AccountantsWorld has developed into an excellent example of a provider of software as a service, with its applications specifically designed to offer at least as much functionality and ease of use over the Internet as the best of in-house software.

Providing only "accountant-centric" applications, AccountantsWorld has a comprehensive suite of applications that tie nicely together. In addition to the Accounting Relief application reviewed here, AccountantsWorld also has fixed asset, practice management, sales tax management, and service bureau payroll, all online and accessed through the Internet.

Accounting Relief covers two bets for AccountantsWorld - both as a trial balance application and as a write-up application. As a TB application, Accounting Relief offers lead sheets and other accoutrements needed for quick tax prep input or comprehensive compilation, review or audit support. As a write-up application, it allows you to easily set up multiple clients, provide a bookkeeping application for your clients to perform their own data entry (which can also be performed by your practice, if desired), and provide easy access to the original books of record so that you can make any needed adjusting or closing entries.

Accounting Relief is easy to set up, and as an SaaS application, there are no worries about installation problems or periodic updates. As with most write-up applications, you can use the vendor-provided boilerplate charts of account to perform a new client set-up, or simply copy the configuration from an existing client. We found it easy to customize almost every aspect of the software, including what a client will see when they sign on to work on their books, as well as reports and financial statements. The client system allows them to do more than just enter transactions - they can also generate invoices and write checks. A nice dashboard display, which AccountantsWorld calls the Activity Center, presents a quick and easy-to-understand look at critical client data.

As an online application, the pricing of Accounting Relief is somewhat different from that of an in-house package. Rather than an initial purchase or license fee and yearly maintenance costs, it costs $995 per year with no limitation on the number of clients or staff members that you have using it. If, for some reason, you only need to use the application for a short time, the fee is $99 per month. AccountantsWorld also has a reduced price if you have only a few clients that you will implement on Accounting Relief.

We tested Accounting Relief with a high-speed (30 MBS) Internet connection and found it as quick to work with as if it had been installed in-house. A slower connection might not provide the same experience, so if you aren't sure of whether your current Internet connection will be effective, ask AccountantsWorld to let you try out a demo.

PROSYSTEM FX CLIENT WRITE-UP

There are only a small number of companies providing software to the accountant market that offer the whole gamut of applications in an integrated suite. That's simply a matter of economics. It costs a lot of money to develop (or acquire) all of those individual applications, a lot of money to integrate them so they work perfectly with each other, and a lot of money to give them all the same user interface so an accountant and their staff don't require intensive training to go from one application to another. And once that large investment's made, it still costs a lot of money to support and maintain all of those applications year after year. Not many companies can afford the investment and ongoing costs.

FORTUNATELY, CCH CAN.

Over the years, the company's ProSystem fx has developed into one of the premier suites offering accountant-oriented applications. In addition to the ProSystem fx Write-Up reviewed here, CCH has ProSystem fx applications for tax preparation, engagement management, payroll, fixed assets, document management, and more. Of course, not every practice needs all of these applications, but a midsized firm with a wide variety of clients will find that all of their practice needs are pretty much covered.

As you might expect from a high-end application, ProSystem fx Write-Up has plenty of bells and whistles. It's not difficult to set up clients into departments, divisions and locations - a common requirement with many of a practice's larger clients. The application lets you perform a wide variety of customization on both data entry screens and reports. It's also a simple matter to export reports to Excel or Microsoft Word for further analysis or editing. A nice selection of cover letters and notes are available for inclusion in the financial statements.

Real-time payroll is an additional application and not included with write-up. That is not uncommon, especially with vendors that also offer payroll as a separate module. You can, however, easily import payroll data from QuickBooks and PayCycle, and generate W-2s, 1099s and 940/941 forms and magnetic filing reports directly from the write-up application.

ProSystem fx Write-Up is not an inexpensive application - it's pricing starts at $2,000 and goes up from there. That may put it out of consideration in many smaller firms where budget is a considerable constraint. In a midsized firm, or a practice that has high-end clients, ProSystem fx Write-Up and the other components of the ProSystem fx Suite are a very justifiable investment.

ATX AND TAXWISE WRITE-UP

CCH has been busy the last few years buying up accounting and tax vendors. These have been consolidated into a new division at CCH, Small Firm Services, which at the moment is comprised of popular forms and applications vendor ATX Software, and Universal Tax Systems, provider of the popular TaxWise applications. While CCH certainly has other applications in the write-up and tax arena, it feels that its ProSystem fx Office suite and applications may not appeal to smaller practices, which might have budgetary constraints and somewhat less-comprehensive requirements.

CCH Small Firm Services provides write-up applications as an adjunct to the TaxWise Tax products, as well as a stand-alone product under the ATX Software label. The only real difference between the two is the export function, which exports the results to the appropriate TaxWise or ATX Tax product. The underlying engine is the same, so we installed and examined only the ATX offering.

Client Write-Up is available in two versions. The Client Write-Up Suite, priced at $395 (for either branded product) includes the write-up application and a subset of the write-up application for clients to use as a "checkbook" to record disbursements and receipts. The client can also use this application to print a very basic general ledger report, as well as reconcile their back accounts. If a client is using another accounting package, such as Peachtree or QuickBooks, that data can be imported into Client Write-Up.

This basic Client Write-Up also provides an easy-to-use after-the-fact payroll, in which data is entered from the payroll stubs. The ATF payroll can produce W-2s, 1099s, and 940 and 941 forms. The more expensive $795 Suite with Payroll offers a full payroll that can be used to process real-time payroll for clients. It includes features such as direct deposit and MICR check printing, and is easily worth the additional $400 if your practice can use this capability.

The documentation we received with the software, several small PDF files on the CD, is rather sparse, but we had no difficulty installing or using the application. Real-time online help is provided, and the screens are pretty much self-explanatory.

On the one hand, purchasers of the ATX or TaxWise Client Write-Up application are closing themselves off from a comprehensive accountant-oriented suite of applications such as fixed assets and practice management. On the other, CCH Small Firm Services is betting that smaller firms will continue to be satisfied with the two core applications almost every practice needs - tax prep and write-up, both of which are available.

DRAKE CLIENT WRITE-UP

In recent years, it's become common for vendors of tax prep software to add to their repertoire. After all, tax prep is the hard sell, and once you have done that successfully, why let the customer go elsewhere for other software? And adding a write-up application makes perfect sense, since you can do the client's accounting, then simply transfer the results into the tax prep application to produce a return. With that in mind, Drake Software was one of the vendors to add this mission-critical application to its comprehensive collection of tax prep products. And, best of all, if you are already a Drake tax prep customer (or have been considering switching to them), the write-up application is free. Non-Drake customers pay a reasonable $445 for the software.

Of course, even free software is no bargain if it doesn't do what you need done, or does it poorly. Not to worry - Drake has you covered. Setting up the software is not difficult, and if the client is already in the system for tax prep, as most will be, you can transfer much of the set-up data over from that application, which makes setting the client up even easier.

Once you get going, don't expect a lot of bells and whistles. While data entry and menu screens are well-laid-out and easy to use, you can't customize them. And you won't find the dozens of reports that some write-up packages provide, although those reports that are provided can be stored in RTF format so you can edit them with Word or another word processor.

On the other hand, you will get some surprising features, including a working trial balance (Drake calls this a trial balance worksheet), ATF payroll and real-time payroll, and in a version not yet available at the time this review was performed, accounts receivable. The ATF and real-time payroll can produce W-2s, 1099s and 940/941s, and there's even MICR check printing included.

That's a lot of functionality for $445 - and an even better deal if it's free.

QUICKBOOKS ACCOUNTANT'S EDITION 2008

Most accountants probably don't think of QuickBooks as a write-up package. When you consider that it has the ability to do after-the-fact payroll, slipstreaming adjusting entries, and is the most-used bookkeeping package in the world, it's easy to justify including the Accountant's Edition 2008, which we reviewed in beta, in this round-up.

Many of the write-up applications also have some sort of client checkbook available, so that the client can make many of the detailed source entries for disbursements and receipts, which are then incorporated into the GL, along with any necessary adjusting entries, to produce the original books of record. QuickBooks Accountant's Edition 2008 carries this concept to a higher level, by letting a client, using QuickBooks, perform almost all of the data entry, transmit the QB file to the accountant for any adjustments, and continue working with the application while the accountant is still making adjustments to the copy they were sent. When finished with the adjustment, QuickBooks can merge these entries into the current files, so a client never has to stop using the software while waiting for adjusting entries to be made.

With the 2008 version of QB Accountant's Edition, Intuit added backwards-compatibility with the 2007 versions of QuickBooks, so an accountant no longer needs to maintain multiple years' versions of the software to be able to work with clients who have a different year's edition of QuickBooks. This compatibility, however, only extends back one year (to the 2007 versions) at the present time. When working with clients' books, QB Accountant's Edition now encrypts the files and stores the files on a remote server where the client can download them. This reduces problems with e-mail applications that put small limits on the size of attachments.

Other changes in the Accountant's Edition 2008 are a remote access tool so that the accountant can actually operate a client's PC and QuickBooks installation from their own office, and a very nicely designed interface that lets the software pick up time for billing purposes from Microsoft Outlook. Intuit also offers a time-tracking application on the Web for a small monthly charge per user.

Lacerte users will appreciate the new SmartMap feature, which maps accounts to the proper input lines in Lacerte for preparing a client's return, and a new feature that clients will appreciate is the ability to highlight a flow on the main menu for a specific task, such as producing an invoice.

As with previous years' editions, the 2008 edition can be switched between different versions of QuickBooks, such as Pro and Premiere, so an accountant can easily answer client questions. Intuit has also greatly expanded the QuickBooks User Forum, so answers to many questions can be obtained directly from users who have had the same problem and solved it.

WRITE-UP CS

Thomson is in the process of integrating all of its tax and accounting companies under a single umbrella - Thomson Tax & Accounting. So some of the Write-Up CS documentation and marketing material still reflects the old Creative Solutions name, and some has been updated. Regardless of the name and logo on the software, it's still the popular suite of accountant-oriented applications that has been built up and continuously updated over the years.

While the name may have changed, the application hasn't. Write-Up CS is a mature application, and as such, only minor incremental improvements have been made to last year's version. That's fine with us. We hardily subscribe to the maxim, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it!"

Write-Up CS certainly ain't broke. The former Creative Solutions was one of the first vendors of accountant-oriented software to realize the advantage of using a single underlying database that's shared between all of the applications of the suite. That completely eliminates rekeying - you only have to enter data into the system once and it's available in any of the installed applications that need to reference it. This is now pretty common, but Thomson Tax & Accounting has been at it long enough to have it down pat.

One big selling point for Write-UP CS is the same as for CCH's ProSystem fx Write-up - there's a large suite of other applications available that cover most of the other aspects of running an accounting practice. The CS Professional Suite includes not only write-up, but also tax preparation, practice management, trial balance, service bureau payroll, an engagement manager, and a document management system called Filing Cabinet CS.

Thomson Tax & Accounting also offers an add-on to Write-Up CS called Payroll Compliance CS. As with most of the write-up applications we examined, Write-Up CS contains a very nicely done ATF payroll. What it doesn't have is the ability to produce W-2s, 1099s and 940/941s for the clients that you are processing. These tasks require the $280-per-year Payroll Compliance CS. The one bright spot about this approach is that if you also have the Payroll CS application, you can use the Payroll Compliance CS module with that application as well.

Given the number of years that this application has been available, we would expect that installation and configuration would go smoothly, and we weren't disappointed. Our install CD also came with a license floppy, but you can request that the licenses be downloaded over the Internet if you don't happen to have a floppy drive. As with most write-up software, you can use boilerplate charts of accounts, or copy an existing client's set-up. You can also pull information from the underlying database if you have already set up the client in another CS Professional Suite application.

Write-Up CS has an excellent set of reports, and it's not too difficult to customize these with filters and a financial statement editor. Write-Up CS even lets you customize the data entry screens so they are in the same input order as the fields on your source documents.

While you can certainly use Write-Up CS as a stand-alone write-up application, its greatest usability will come as part of the CS Professional Suite. It's not inexpensive, but in the long run the productivity gains that come from using a highly integrated set of applications should more than make up for the software's somewhat premium price.

Ted Needleman, a former editor of Accounting Technology, is a consultant and freelance writer based in Stony Point, N.Y.

Vendor Information

Accounting Relief

AccountantsWorld

Hauppauge, N.Y.

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsoffice.com

Pricing: Per year - $995; per month - $99.

CCH ProSystem fx Client Write-Up

CCH Tax and Accounting

Torrance, Calif.

(800) PFX-9998

http://tax.cchgroup.com

Pricing: Starts at $1,995.

CCH Small Firm Services

ATX Write-Up

CCH Small Firm Services

Caribou, Maine

(877) 728-9776

www.atxinc.com

Pricing: $395; with payroll - $795.

CCH Small Firm Services

TaxWise Write-Up

Universal Tax Systems

Rome, Ga.

(800) 755-9473

www.taxwise.com

Pricing: $395; with payroll - $795.

Drake Client Write-Up

Drake Software

Franklin, N.C.

(800) 890-9500

www.drakesoftware.com

Pricing: For Drake tax software customers - free; non-customers - $445.

Intuit QuickBooks

Accountant's Edition 2008

Intuit Inc.

Mountain View, Calif.

(800) 4-INTUIT

www.quickbooks.com

Pricing: $399.

Write-Up CS

Thomson Tax & Accounting

Dexter, Mich.

(800) 968-8900

www.creativesolutions.com

Pricing: $1,800, plus $280 per year for Payroll Compliance.

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