You might think that, with the advent and popularity of comprehensive write-up software, trial balance applications would have disappeared from the scene. That hasn't happened, nor does it appear to be likely at any time in the near future.

The reason is simple - trial balance software addresses somewhat different needs. Sure, you can perform trial balance types of tasks, such as generating financial statements, using write-up software. But if you do a considerable amount of different types of client work, it's more than likely that you could benefit from having both applications.

The most obvious use is to generate accurate financial statements as rapidly as possible. Because trial balance software is focused around the adjusted trial balance report, making closing and adjusting entries and quickly seeing the results makes trial balance an attractive application. Pro forma statements are also easier to prepare using a trial balance application. And end-of-year closings, with all of the necessary adjusting and reclassifying entries, are usually much easier using a trial balance package.

Entering and editing client data as an "on ramp" to a tax prep package, either from a write-up or bookkeeping application or from batch entry of a client's shoebox receipts, is another area where trial balance earns its keep in many practices. In fact, many tax preparation vendors bundle in a trial balance application with their tax prep software.

Another area where trial balance shines is as an adjunct to audits and compilations. For these, you will probably want the ability to generate lead sheets and workpapers. Routing boxes are handy when you need multiple staff/partner reviews. Some TB applications even provide some degree of engagement management. Elementary document/content management is also a popular feature, allowing you to scan and "paste" supporting documents and records to transactions.

On the financial statement side, being able to easily add footnotes and supporting statements is a feature than many practices will appreciate, especially if the client's financials are complex.

The heart of any trial balance application, however, is the working trial balance report. Exactly what this looks like, or how it's used, sometimes varies. At a minimum, it has columns for unadjusted debits and credits for each general ledger account, columns for the adjustments (and possibly explanations), and a set of columns for the adjusted totals for each account. Some practitioners prefer to print out the working trial balance report and make the adjustments initially by hand on the report before entering them; others perform this task directly within the application.

There are a number of vendors in this space providing software that ranges from free (when bundled in with tax prep software) to fairly expensive. To give you a head start in making your choice, we tested six trial balance applications using sample data from the vendors, as well as importing, where possible, a current QuickBooks sample client. All testing was done on a Lenovo T400s laptop running Windows 7 Enterprise, typical of the type of PC that you might use on your desk or at a client.

 

Accounting Relief

AccountantsWorld

(888) 999-1366

www.accountantsworld.com

Part of a suite of accountant-oriented applications, including practice management, payroll and others, which combine to form an overall "Power Practice System," Accounting Relief, like the rest of the suite, is provided online as a Software-as-a-Service package.

This provides a number of advantages. In additional to not having to worry about upgrades and backups (though we still recommend backing up locally as well), Accounting Relief is easily usable at a client site as long as you have some sort of Internet-equipped device and access to the Net.

When using Accounting Relief for trial balance, rather than for write-up, the data entry screens allow very rapid batch data entry. If you are using the application to make adjusting entries for a client using QuickBooks or Peachtree, you can import the client's chart of accounts from these applications. Reports included in the application are all clear and usable, and there are a number of different trial balance report presentations available. The available reports can be customized if needed for specific uses. You can also feed the output directly into a number of popular tax prep packages.

Accounting Relief also has a number of features that make it attractive for audit, compilation and Sarbanes-Oxley work, including leadsheets, workpapers and tick marks. Setting up a new client is fast and you can copy templates for a sample client or a similar client that's already set up. Accounting Relief can also be configured for client data entry.

You will need some kind of Internet connection to use the software, and dial-up will work, but you might find the responsiveness somewhat frustrating.

One feature of Accounting Relief (as well as other AccountantsWorld applications) that we've always found attractive is the pricing model. For a yearly fee of $990 (or $99 per month), you can use Accounting Relief for an unlimited number of clients, and as either a trial balance or write-up application depending on the client.

 

Working Papers

CaseWare International Inc.

(800) 267-1317

www.caseware.com

Some software offerings are easy to classify as trial balance. Others are really write-up-oriented applications that are quite usable in a trial balance situation. Working Papers is somewhat the opposite. At its core, it's oriented more towards use in a TB environment, but powerful and extendable enough to be comfortably used for write-up.

Conceptually, Working Papers uses a content management model, with different kinds of forms and documents used to provide the required base for tasks that need to be performed for the client. Workpapers, lead sheets, routing and tickmarks are all useful in both a trial balance engagement and in audit, compilation, and SOX compliance tasks.

In addition to having excellent capabilities in being able to prepare an adjusted trial balance and fairly complex financial statements, Working Papers has a number of optional add-ons for producing more specialized financials, including GAAP financials and IFRS financials.

Working Papers is simple and quick to install. You can use the included sample clients to set up your own, or import charts of accounts and beginning balances from most accounting packages. The application also provides extensive export capability to many of the most popular tax prep packages.

 

ProSystem fx Trial Balance

CCH Tax and Accounting

(800) PFX-9998

http://tax.cchgroup.com

Suites of accounting software applications are the way to go for many practices. Since these suites use a single set of underlying databases, data is input into the suite in one application, and becomes accessible by the rest of the applications in the suite. This not only pretty much eliminates having to key the same data multiple times, but also cuts down on the opportunity to introduce errors.

Some of the applications included in this roundup have enough additional features that they are useful in engagements that require write-up capabilities. That's not true of ProSystem fx Trial Balance, or a similar product from CCH's main competitor, Thomson Reuters. Both are part of suites that have specific write-up modules for that task.

ProSystem fx Trial Balance provides a means for entering data, making consolidations and adjusting entries, and generating workpapers and financial statements. This makes the application useful in audit work. As it is likely that the application will also tie into the ProSystem tax preparation products, an optional "Dynalink" allows this data to be used in the tax return preparation system.

In addition, ProSystem fx Trial Balance provides industry-specific leadsheets and other workpapers. Over 30 pre-defined ratios are provided, with the ability to define your own, which is useful in creating complex financial statements, which sometimes require ratio analysis be included.

Customization is a powerful feature of ProSystem fx Trial Balance. There are a large number of statements and reports, and these can be further tailored to your clients' exact requirements. You can print or e-mail reports in PDF format, and export a report to Excel for additional analysis.

 

TBFSwriter

CPAwriter Inc.

(866) 241-4433

www.cpawriter.com

Compared to some of the other applications we looked at, TBFSwriter comes off as somewhat of a one-trick pony. But it does that one trick, generating complex financial statements, very, very well.

While the other packages concentrate on the adjusted trial balance, TBFSwriter puts more emphasis on the statements. Data entry capabilities are fairly rudimentary, with import from Excel being the expected data entry method for most clients. You can perform adjusting entries, but this is probably easier to do in either the accounting package or a quick and dirty worksheet in Excel.

But when you're ready to get down to the financial statement nitty-gritty, TBFSwriter starts to show what it can do. There are templates for different statement layouts available for download from the vendor (called practice aids), and generating all three required statements is not difficult, though the initial learning curve is somewhat steeper than with many of the other trial balance applications. With footnotes and other advanced capabilities, there really isn't much in the financial statement area that can't be achieved using TBFSwriter.

The software itself is easy to set up. It uses a Microsoft SQL database as its underlying engine, but the install routine takes care of the installation and configuration of MS SQL 2008 Express. For the easiest experience though, you will probably want to install the application on a system that hasn't had SQL previously installed - unless you are experienced in troubleshooting SQL problems.

Several of the applications reviewed here provide more comprehensive overall functionality. But when it comes to preparing financial statements for use in SEC filings, audit/compilation reports, and for annual reports, TBFSwriter can really earn its pay by allowing you and your staff to pull together precisely the statement and format needed. If your practice has significant work in any of these areas, TBFSwriter might prove to be a worthwhile investment.

 

Quick Trial Balance

Pro-Ware LLC

(402) 861-8800

www.pro-ware.biz

Quick Trial Balance is aptly named. You can enter data through the data entry screen, or if the client's accounting/booking data is being kept with a package that can output the information to an Excel spreadsheet, you can import it directly into the application. QTB also supports data import from packages including QuickBooks and Peachtree.

Either way, getting the trial balance figures into Quick Trial Balance doesn't take much time or effort. If needed, you can also export client data in CSV, TXT and XLS formats.

Set-up was very easy, and took just a few minutes. QTB lets you add accounts on the fly, which is helpful when you need to reclassify an adjustment into an account that isn't in the existing chart of accounts.

The screens in QTB aren't fancy, but they work well and aren't difficult to navigate. Reports aren't too snazzy either, but again, are workable. The working trial balance report, which is really the heart of a trial balance package, is straightforward, and can be printed in landscape mode. It has a single column for journal entries (i.e., adjusting entries) and another single column for the adjusted balance. We prefer separate columns for debits and credits, but this is a matter of personal preference and doesn't impact the usability of the software or the report. One other thing we would have liked was a formal user manual. QTB has a fairly extensive help facility, but it's a help screen, not true user documentation.

Still, Pro-Ware has done a good job in providing a very to-the-point trial balance application for practitioners who just need to get the data in, make adjustments quickly, and print an adjusted trial balance and financials. The attractiveness is enhanced by the very reasonable price of $99 for the single-user version, and $199 for an unlimited multi-user license. QTB may be of somewhat limited capability for a midsized to large firm, but for a sole practitioner or small practice, it might be a good fit.

 

Trial Balance CS

Thomson Reuters

(800) 968-8900

www.cs.thomsonreuters.com

Modular systems like the CS Professional Suite offer the advantage of letting your practice closely tailor the system to your current needs, adding and dropping application components as needed.

It does mean, however, that Trial Balance CS has a very narrow focus. If you want engagement or document management features, you'll need to add the available modules for them. For an application that starts out with a $900 single-user price, it means that Trial Balance CS may price itself out of consideration for some smaller practices.

But while price is an important consideration, capability is another important point that needs to be factored in. And when the capabilities of Trial Balance CS are considered, the price becomes somewhat less of a concern. Trial Balance CS is easy to install and configure, and has excellent import capabilities. Data entry screens are well designed and are very customizable.

One very common use for trial balance software is preparing financial statements. Trial Balance CS makes it easy to switch between statements meant for different users - cash, accrual, tax, book, and a number of others. And, of course, data can both come from, and flow to, other applications in the CS Professional Suite, including tax prep.

Reporting is another area where Trial Balance CS is particularly strong. There is an extensive collection of reports, and as with most places in the CS Suite, they can be customized to a great extent. Financial statements can have complex footnotes and even graphics. A boilerplate collection of basic financial ratios is also included if you want to use them in reports and statements.

And if there is a feature that you want that is not included in Trial Balance CS, chances are that you'll find it in another CS Professional Suite module.

 

Ted Needleman is senior director of the Technical Services Division of Industry Analysts Inc., an independent market research firm and testing laboratory. He was previously the editor-in-chief of Accounting Technology, and writes frequently on software, hardware, and technology-related subjects.

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