by Roger Russell

Tax research vendors are upping the ante in what tax research tools can do.

Both Riverwoods, Ill.-based CCH and New York-based RIA, a Thomson business, have continued to add content, features and functionality to their research platforms.

“As customers learn more about the Internet and computer-assisted research, we’re better able to gauge their demands,” said Marci Suelzer, product manager for CCH Tax &
Accounting. “They see new features on Amazon and want to know why we can’t do the same. So we’re always trying to tailor technology to the tax professional’s workload.”

“There’s always something new. As the market matures, users expect more from providers,” agreed Ron Burkert, director of product management for RIA’s Checkpoint. “The most important direction for practitioners is integrated solutions.”

RIA recently launched its latest version of Checkpoint with the addition of four new productivity tools.

Create-a-Chart allows users to build state tax scenario comparisons within seconds, with links to primary source material and editorial analysis. For example, a user doing business in all 50 states and the District of Columbia could create, within seconds, a chart that spells out which states allow net operating loss carrybacks. The information placed in the chart is automatically updated, and is the most current available.

Form/Line Finder provides a direct entry to information specific to a line on the tax form. The user can integrate Checkpoint with any tax preparation software using Speedlink, a tool that links to the RIA Tax Return Guides for line-by-line analysis of the major income tax forms. Form/Line Finder also provides the researcher with the ability to do research based on where the answer would be reported on the tax return form, without constructing complex keyword searches.

Document Assembly lets Checkpoint subscribers complete client letters, agreements, and election or compliance statements from standard RIA practice aid templates while online. “It’s truly an integrated tool. The user can click the Document Assembly button, and view the document in a template format,” said Burkert.

“After the required information is filled in, the document can be downloaded to a word processing format for printing or filing,” he added.

In addition, more than 80 calculator tools have been added to Checkpoint, in such categories as Auto (e.g. buy vs. lease); Business (e.g. business valuation); Investments (e.g. annual stock option grants); Mortgages (e.g. mortgage qualifier); and Retirement (e.g. 401(k) “Spend It or Save It”).

Meanwhile, CCH has been adding improvements regularly to its Tax Research Network platform, and has scheduled a late-November rollout for its newly designed user interface.

“We just launched an express browser toolbar that is with you wherever you go,” said Jill Eck, product manager for CCH Tax & Accounting. “You can click and log into your own customized Tax Research Network from whatever site you’re in.”

“It’s amazingly helpful because it gives you access to TRN anytime without logging in,” said Suelzer.

Another enhancement, Link Express, allows the customer to send a link to a specific TRN site via e-mail to a client or colleague. Larger firms are also using this feature in tandem with their internal Web site, according to Eck.

“The tax department of a firm might add the link to their site to answer commonly asked questions, for example, on educational savings accounts,” she said. “It’s a great tool for collaboration and easy access.”

TRN has its own document assembly tools, according to Suelzer. “We’re continually enhancing client letters. There’s also a Depreciation Toolkit, and an Election and Compliance Toolkit. The practitioner can fill them in for clients and assemble an election or client letter.”

In many respects, the two top research platforms are similar, both leveraging their parent companies’ other products to the widest extent possible. Tax Research Network contains CCH’s Aspen publications, while Checkpoint now has many of RIA’s brands available, including Warren, Gorham & Lamont; West; and Practitioners Publishing Co. Tax Research Network produces its own Tax Day, while Checkpoint, under an arrangement with the Bureau of National Affairs, contains BNA’s Daily Tax Report.

Both also combine the research capabilities of their respective platforms with customized compliance data mining tools in CCH’s Client Relate and RIA’s Tax Alerts.

A recent TRN enhancement, Smart Relate, lets the researcher compare related topics from state to state. “Each state has its own spin on how to divide the world of tax,” noted Suelzer. “This tool helps knit the material across all the states — a Topic Connect button brings up a list of other states with, for example, a provision regarding drop shipments. It lets you go from the explanation to a current development in another state, and move between and within states.”

Another state feature, a multi-state chart, contains 150 charts and is being added to most state tax libraries, according to Suelzer. “It covers topics such as sales and use tax, property tax, how to locate a business and how it will be taxed in a particular state,” she said.

Much of the new emphasis is “on the state side,” noted Suelzer. “There’s just one federal schema, but there are 50 states plus the District of Columbia.”

“The competitive landscape has shifted to state and international,” agreed Burkert. “For years the emphasis was on federal, but that’s now a mature area. The major growth areas in research tools are in the state and international arenas.”

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