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Take The Time To Pick A Tax Preparer Who's Right For You
(RIVERWOODS, ILL., January 2002) If this is the year you decide to hire a tax
preparer, youre in good company. Each year, millions of Americans turn to
professional tax preparers for help with their annual returns as they seek to minimize
their tax liability, and without inadvertently crossing the IRS. In fact, in 1999, more
than 69 million returns were submitted by an accountant, tax attorney, enrolled agent, a
retail tax service or other paid tax preparer. To help you pick a professional whos
right for you, CCH INCORPORATED (CCH), a leading provider of tax law information and
professional tax preparation software, offers these guidelines.
Let the Search Begin
Go with know-how. Its a good idea to look for a tax professional who has
consistent experience in tax, especially since tax laws change frequently. Since 1995
alone, there have been almost 2,500 amendments to the Internal Revenue Code.
Also, the increasing use of time-delayed effective dates for tax legislation passed by
Congress may mean that new provisions can sneak into the tax code with little notice years
after they were approved. Unless youre tracking new tax developments every day,
chances are youre not aware of all of the changes that have taken effect since last
Ask your friends. The best place to start looking for a tax professional is with
people you know. Ask friends whose financial situations are similar to your own if they
can recommend anyone to help you.
Contact your state CPA, Legal or Enrolled Agent organizations. Many state
organizations maintain computer databases of local accountants and other tax preparers and
will provide free assistance in helping you select a tax professional in your area. Also,
many of these organizations provide free assistance to low-income taxpayers who may not be
able to afford tax preparation help. Finally, there are a number of Internet sites that
provide listings and directories of accountants organized by locality.
Ask the Right Questions
Once you have identified several candidates, take the time to discuss these important
questions with them:
What is the focus of your practice? Some tax professionals have specialties in areas
such as real estate or small business. If you have specific concerns, make sure your tax
professional is qualified to provide the special assistance you require by asking for
Are you familiar with the laws of states in which I am subject to tax? If you have
financial interests in states other than where you live, make sure your tax professional
is familiar with those state laws or has access to research tools covering those states.
For example, if you receive income from a partnership operating in another state or live
in one state and work in another, selecting a tax professional with interstate knowledge
How do you bill your clients? Before you ask your tax professional to do anything,
get a good idea of how he bills and the level of detail provided. Does he charge an hourly
rate or a straight fee? How and when will you be billed? Will you be billed for research
time if needed? To avoid confusion, get the billing and payment terms in writing.
Also, if you think you are interested in taking advantage of a refund anticipation
loan, whereby you receive an advance payment of your refund, be sure to ask in detail
about the associated fees. Most likely, theres the fee to the tax preparation
company to complete your tax forms, a separate fee to file your return electronically - which is a requirement for loan program participation and
the bank loan fee itself. You may find youre paying a hefty interest rate on your
How do you characterize your professional style? Does she take an aggressive
approach to minimize the tax burden even if it means incurring questions from the IRS or
an audit? Or does she take a conservative path and risk paying a few extra dollars? Just
as doctors have different treatment philosophies, tax professionals have different styles.
As the client, you make the final decisions. Choose a tax professional whose approach
closely matches your own philosophy.
If I am audited, will you represent me? Ask your potential tax professional if he
would represent you if the IRS questions your filing or decides to audit you. If so, ask
if he has much experience with IRS audits. While some such experience is good, too much
can be a warning sign.
How do you keep current with the tax law? Does the preparer use current-year
computer software to prepare your returns? Also, ask if she has access to tax research
services, such as CCH, should the need for research arise.
What do you need from me? Ask exactly what information is needed and in what form.
Many professionals provide print or electronic "organizers" to help you sort
your financial records. Some ask that all tax information be saved on a computer disk,
which can be downloaded into tax return software. The more organized you are before you
give your tax preparer your records, the better he is able to prepare your return in the
shortest time (and the more money you can save in fees).
A Final Check
Make sure your CPA is licensed by the state CPA association. If you decide to hire a
CPA, check with your state CPA Society to verify her license and to see if any complaints
have been filed. If complaints have been filed, look elsewhere.
Some General Hints
Keep accurate records all year. Or, at least organize your records before you give
them to your tax professional. That means saving important receipts, stock earnings
statements and salary records. By organizing your tax information before giving it to your
tax professional, youll save the cost of having him organize it for you and save you
both a lot of headaches.
Create an outline of your financial picture. You should have a general idea of your
financial situation before you begin searching for a tax professional. Are your taxes
simple or complicated? Do you run a business from your home,
have multi-state holdings or limited partnerships? The better you understand your
financial needs, the better prepared you are to find someone to meet them.
Consider filing electronically. For a fee, electronic filing allows individuals or their tax professionals to
send their return directly to the IRS through a computer modem at designated locations.
The main benefit of filing electronically is that you receive your refund much faster than
if you file through the mail. Generally, if your tax refund is large, electronic filing
makes sense and could be worth the fee because you receive your refund sooner. Filing
electronically is not the best option if your refund is small because the fee may be
larger than your refund.
Get some mileage out of paying your taxes. You also can use a credit card to pay
Uncle Sam, and in exchange take advantage of some benefits, such as matching airplane
miles offered by credit card companies. Consider if there are benefits to charging your
taxes, then quickly paying off the debt. You can use a credit card this year to pay your
taxes when e-filing your return or using Telefile.
Dont wait until the last minute. Whether you are planning to complete your
return yourself or hire someone to do it for you, the earlier you begin, the better.
Waiting until the last minute only increases the anxiety associated with tax time. If you
just can't file on time, the last day you can file for a four-month extension without
penalty is April 15. Even if you file for an extension and you think you owe, you still
have to pay by that date to avoid interest and penalties.
Know your options. Certified public accountants are not the only help available for
tax preparation; there are also tax attorneys, enrolled agents, certified financial
planners and consumer retail tax preparation companies.
"Its important to remember that even after youve made an informed
choice, you still need to proceed with caution," said CCH Principal Analyst Mark
Luscombe, JD, CPA.
Congress granted taxpayers numerous new rights under the IRS Restructuring and
Reform Act of 1998 that affect both individual taxpayers and hundreds of thousands of
accountants and enrolled agents who advise them on tax matters. Specifically, a recent law
extended the existing attorney-client privilege to non-attorneys authorized to practice
before the IRS.
"There are limitations, however, to this privilege with regard to tax
preparation," cautioned Luscombe.
"If you review how confidentiality has been applied in the attorney-client
environment, youll find that the privilege doesnt apply to preparation of tax
returns. Communications with respect to tax return preparation are simply not protected
under the law, and taxpayers should not make the mistake of assuming that everything told
to accountants is considered privileged communications," he said.
Definition of Terms
Here are descriptions of the different types of tax professionals available to help you
during tax season.
Certified Public Accountant: A CPA is someone who has a wide range of accounting
experience and has passed the CPA exam, which is given by the state board of accountancy.
In order to be eligible to sit for the test, a CPA candidate must complete a number of
education requirements. In addition, states can impose their own requirements. In order to
maintain their certification, CPAs must earn a number of continuing education credits
through their CPA societies.
Enrolled Agent: Enrolled agents specialize in taxation and are given their
titles by the IRS. To become an EA, an individual must either practice at the IRS for five
years and be selected by application, or pass an extensive four-part exam. They can
represent taxpayers before the IRS, and in administrative proceedings, circuit court and,
possibly, Tax Court if they pass the appropriate tests.
Retail Tax Preparation Company Employee: In general, people working at a
consumer tax preparation company are trained and certified by the company that hires them.
They have been trained by the company to handle returns for individuals who don't feel
confident completing their own returns.
Certified Financial Planner: Certified financial planners receive special
certification for financial planning, estate planning and investments for individuals from
several noted organizations. Many are capable of providing tax assistance, but may not be
formally trained as such. Many accountants are also certified financial planners.
Tax Attorney: A tax attorney is trained in the law and chooses to specialize in
tax matters, including preparation, audits and litigation. As a general rule, attorneys
are certified by the state in which they practice and many are required to complete
continuing education courses, though not necessarily in tax topics.
About CCH INCORPORATED
CCH INCORPORATED, headquartered in Riverwoods, Ill., was founded in 1913 and has served
over four generations of business professionals and their clients. The company produces
more than 700 electronic and print products for the tax, legal, securities, human
resources, health care and small business markets. CCH is a wholly owned subsidiary of
Wolters Kluwer North America. The CCH web site can be accessed at cch.com. The CCH tax and accounting
destination site can be accessed at tax.cchgroup.com.
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