We are in the midst of it: tax season. For many, it’s a time of stress as they assemble receipts, search through files and consider the constant changes in tax law. For those whose taxes are complex, even if only slightly, a decision must be made regarding the hiring of a professional. The following is your Better Business Bureau’s (BBB’s) advice for making the right decision about who you are going to trust to do this vital and often complicated job.
Know the types of tax preparers
Tax preparers have widely varying levels of training, experience and expertise. As you search for the right person to handle your highly valuable personal information, understand the different categories that tax preparers may fall into:
• Enrolled Agents (EA) – They have either had prior employment with the IRS or they must pass a tough two-day exam on taxation issues, in addition to undergoing a thorough background check. They have to complete a certain number of credit hours annually in continuing education about accounting methods and tax regulations. An EA is a good option if you have a more complex tax situation. However, you’ll want to make sure their area of expertise applies to your personal situation. Fees and availability may vary, but you can expect an EA to charge less than a CPA.
• Certified Public Accountant (CPA) – These highly skilled accountants have a college degree and are licensed by passing a state qualifying exam. They charge more and are the best choice for highly complex tax return filing.
• Attorneys – If you’re looking for legal sheltering of part of your income, or need advice regarding municipal bonds, estate planning or similar issues, they are a good option. They are also the most expensive option.
• Non-Credentialed Tax Preparers: They may only work part-time during tax season. They must have an active preparer tax identification number (PTIN) through the IRS. Otherwise they are only regulated through state systems and usually need no license or need not take an exam. Thoroughly interview them if you are considering going through this less expensive route.
Tips on choosing
Decide which type of preparer your taxes might require. Then follow these tips:
• Ask about and review their credentials. EAs, CPAs and attorneys can represent you to the IRS on all matters. If you are audited, however, the other type cannot represent you. Ask them about this vital issue.
• Dramatic promises of large refunds should be a warning. They may use questionable means to get you a large refund. Avoid any that offer “refund anticipation loans.” They will cost you too much.
• Ask friends for referrals. Then check out that firm or person at bbb.org to learn of others’ experiences with them.
• Check whether they are available all year long should the IRS have issues with your return.
• Find out about all fees and charges in advance.
• Trust your gut. If you get an uneasy feeling about the person, don’t use them. Taxes are too important to take risks with.
If you have more questions about choosing a tax preparer, contact your BBB at 800-856-2417 or visit the website bbb.org.