Those of us who have been around for a while remember how researching tax-related questions used to be done. For many years, tax services were provided as printed loose-leaf subscriptions, with edits and editions mailed weekly. Depending on the level of services you subscribed to, you might end up with a wall of binders that required more time to maintain then they were actually used for research.

In the late 1990s, CD-based services started to appear and become popular. Practitioners needed to learn about Boolean operators and how to structure search requests. CD subscriptions were (and are) generally updated monthly, with new discs replacing the previous ones. Today's disc-based subscriptions are usually provided on DVDs, which hold considerably more data. The problem with disc-based research is the same one that haunts paper-based research -- there's simply too much information to wade through.

 

EASIER, AND MORE DIFFICULT

The Internet has once again changed the face of tax research. Depending on the services that you subscribe to, your keyboard and monitor (or laptop, tablet or even smartphone) provide you with the equivalent of a law library that spans shelves and shelves of binders and dozens of high-capacity optical drives. But while access to tax information has become easier, actually conducting tax research has, to a certain extent, become more difficult for a number of reasons.

The first is simply sheer volume. While various tax authorities claim that they are trying to simplify laws and code, in reality case law and rulings dictate that every day there's more material to wade through to research a particular tax situation and its ramifications.

That increasing volume of data further aggravates the search path. With so much data of varying kinds, where do you start and how do you proceed? Electronic research has made it easier to locate data, but it really hasn't made it substantially easier to plot a search path. Do you start with code, topical index, analysis, case law? How do you wend your way through the morass?

Two things are clear. The first is the same as ever -- have a clear understanding of what the problem you are researching actually is. Start with a pencil and paper and create a problem statement. The more detailed and focused your description of the research need is, the easier it will be to get started.

The second enhancement is less obvious. One thing that almost all of the vendors we surveyed offer is training. Yes, you can get by with just a vague knowledge of basic Boolean operators. But that's like driving a standard-shift car only in first gear. At their core, the basics of electronic searching are the same. But training in the specifics of a vendor's product can save you tens if not hundreds of hours of wandering around in the data.

Finally, keep in mind that there is plenty of free information available on the Internet. The IRS and state and local authorities all offer useful publications that cost nothing but the time to find and read them. Just be careful of the source. Sites like Wikipedia are tremendously informative, but not always completely accurate.

Here are some of the major services available for your research. Many of them offer some of the same services provided by other vendors, so there are lots to pick and choose from. Pricing is not included, as with almost every research provider, actual price varies greatly on which services are purchased and how many user licenses are required.

 

Bloomberg BNA Tax & Accounting

Bloomberg BNA Tax and Accounting Center

Bloomberg BNA, like several of the other vendors detailed here, provides a rich research environment, with products that cover federal, state and international accounting. Research products are also available that cover financial accounting and specialized practice areas such as estate planning, compensation planning, and others.

New this year are a trust nexus tool and expanded international tax coverage and tools, which should prove useful when you have clients who operate in the global economy. Also new this year, according to executive editor George Farrah, is a new iPhone/iPad application for access on the go: "One of the nice features of this app is the ability to cache our Portfolios to enable research even when the device is not connected to the Internet."

The Tax and Accounting Center is comprised of a great many Portfolios on a wide range of areas, and analysis is performed by expert practitioners and analysts. These resources are accessible through the search engine and include a unique chart builder that allows you to format research findings in a comparative way.

 

Wolters Kluwer, CCH, and CCH Small Firm Services

CCH IntelliConnect; IntelliConnect Direct, CCH Mobile, CCH eBooks

IntelliConnect acts as a front end and search engine to the different CCH products that you subscribe to. IntelliConnect Direct is targeted more toward smaller firms and practices, and has a different user interface that is easily customized. It remains the same across all of the devices that you use to access the service, regardless of whether it's a desktop PC, smartphone, or tablet. According to Karen DeGasperis, product manager for CCH Small Firm Services, "CCH Mobile is available for iPhone, iPad, Android and Kindle Fire HD. Data and preferences synchronize across all of your devices, making them available any time or anywhere." CCH Mobile isn't limited to IntelliConnect Direct. It's also available in the higher-end IntelliConnect product as well.

IntelliConnect users also have access to Quick Answers, which provides answers to over 2,000 of the most commonly asked federal, state and international topics, as well as the Tax Prep Partner Library, a complete research solution with content that covers 1040, 1065, 1120 and 1120S returns. These features are enhanced by CCH A-Line-D, a lookup tool that delivers the explanation relating to a specific line of a return form.

 

Thomson Reuters Tax & Accounting

Checkpoint

Checkpoint claims to meet the needs of everyone from the sole practitioner all the way up to the largest full-service accounting firms, which might seem boastful until you realize that the research giant has RIA, WG&L, PPC and even Westlaw under its corporate banner. Checkpoint offers access to material from these and other content providers, including BNA, IBFD and EBIA. And that's before you add primary sources.

New in the latest release, Checkpoint Catalyst delivers integrated analysis of the federal, state and international implications of a tax issue in a single place, which reduces the chance of missing something important, cutting down on research time and presenting a "big picture" of the issue being researched.

Also new is Checkpoint's Intuitive Search which, according to Christopher DiMenna, senior manager of federal tax and estate planning, "applies layers of analysis to filter, rank and deliver the best results across all of a user's Checkpoint libraries with unprecedented levels of accuracy." An IRS Response Library is a new practice aid that offers tools including scripts and response documents to speed responding to more than 500 IRS notices, forms and letters.

 

Intuit Inc.

Intuit ProLine Tax Research

Users of Intuit's Lacerte and ProSeries software have a special option for their tax questions -- ProLine Tax Research. This is an online research service that ties directly into specific lines on a wide variety of tax forms and launches you into a customized version of Bloomberg BNA's tax research offerings. Intuit isn't shy about the fact that you are using BNA's tax database, since the tagline for ProLine Tax Research is "Powered by BNA."

This approach has a plus and a minus. The plus is that the research is very tightly tied into the forms on a return, which greatly cuts down time when you have to figure out how to handle a specific entry. That's also the minus, since ProLine Tax Research isn't designed to be used to do research on specific areas when trying to come up with a strategy for a client.

If you can live with this limitation, a year's subscription to ProLine Tax Research will set you back $849. A pay-per-use pricing plan is also available for users who don't anticipate the need for extensive use of the product.

 

Parker Tax Publishing

Parker Tax Pro Library

Most tax research services are pretty expensive. In comparison, Parker Tax Pro Library, at $342 a year, isn't. Launched in 2007, the service went online in 2011, and is the only way that the Library is offered.

The Library consists of material organized into 22 volumes such as Individuals, Partnerships, S Corps and the like. Parker added a 22nd volume on Healthcare Taxes and Credits over the last year to help address research questions as Obamacare phases in.

The Parker Tax Pro Library has its own custom search engine, and there's a Quick Reference Library that lets you look up answers to some of the more common questions without going through search calisthenics.

For the price, the Library is fairly comprehensive, and in addition to source material, you do get access to expert opinion and analysis, though probably not in quite as much depth as is available with some of the more expensive services. Sweetening the pot is the inclusion of practice aids like client letters and checklists. Your subscription even includes a biweekly tax bulletin.

The Parker Tax Pro Library won't be suitable for many midsized and larger practices, but it is an affordable alternative for sole practitioners and small firms.

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