How to Choose a Tax Preparer
A Handy Checklist
From the Hudson Valley Tax Pros
Padgett Business Services, Highland NY
Half of all Americans have their taxes filed by a certified tax preparer every year. There are numerous advantages for doing so, not the least of which is peace-of-mind.
But it’s important to be very selective in choosing a tax preparer. Not only is your hard-earned money at stake, working with an inexperienced tax preparer could also land you in hot water. But fear not – here is the definitive checklist to making a wise choice this tax-filing season.
√ Check their Qualifications
Paid tax preparers must have a Preparer Tax Identification Number (PTIN). A legitimate, certified tax preparer will generously provide their PTIN, along with any other licensing or documentation you might request. Don’t go overboard, just get the necessary (PTIN) information that proves they’re not fly-by-night or otherwise scammy.
√ Check their History
If your tax preparer has worked with the likes of Al Capone or Martha Stewart, run for the hills. Their history as a reputable and honest tax preparer is important. A quick, preliminary “background check” can be accomplished by doing some simple Google searches. Also, the Better Business Bureau is a good place to get this important information.
√ Ask about their fees up-front
If your tax return will be gobbled-up by hidden fees then what’s even the point? You should get the skinny on all fees big and small, and get it up-front. You’ll also want to steer-clear of tax preparers whose fees vary depending on the size of your return. This is a blazing red-flag. Some preparers charge hourly, some charge by the form, and even others charge a single flat-rate fee. If you feel uncomfortable about their fee structure for any reason, bring it to their attention, or simply shop elsewhere.
√ Ask about their turn-around times
If they promise turn-around times fast enough to make your head spin, your head will probably spin, and it will likely hurt. You want to find a tax preparer who is responsive and efficient, but you should never sacrifice accuracy for speed. Your number one priority is to accurately file your taxes and receive a return that is clean in every sense of the word. The faster this can be accomplished, the better. Ask up front about turn-around times.
√ Find out if they’re familiar with your type of return
It’s not too hard to find a decent tax preparer who can file a simple 1040. But it might prove difficult to find one who can file a 1040, take care of your business taxes, and help to file taxes for a deceased relative – all in one go. A few qualifying questions, specifically about the type of taxes you wish to file, and you’ll be squared-away with the right tax-preparer. Not to mention that you’ll have saved some precious time for everyone involved.
√ Are they big risk-takers, or do they play it safe?
Taxes aren’t always black-and-white. You’ll want a tax preparer that has sound judgment, but one who isn’t afraid to go after the deductions you deserve. But it could be detrimental to your pocketbook (and perhaps your freedom) if your preparer is either too aggressive, or on the other end of the spectrum, too safe. Ask about their style and read their customer testimonials. In the end, go with the preparer that you feel comfortable with and believe will handle your taxes with professionalism.
√ Ask if they will represent you if you’re audited
If and when you are audited by the IRS, you’ll want the support of your tax preparer. A professional will help guide you through the auditing process, an otherwise daunting endeavor. Ask your preparer about his or her commitment when it comes to audits. Some tax preparers subcontract this audit support to a different company, and others offer no help at all. If you were to be audited, you’ll want the peace of mind that comes with having an expert in your corner.
√ Find out who exactly will prepare your taxes
Imagine you have a fairly complicated medical procedure to take care of. You do your research and find the surgeon that’s just right for you. You schedule your appointment and start to feel pretty confident. Then, at the eleventh hour, as you’re lying on the table, the surgeon’s 20 year old intern walks in and gloves-up. No thanks! This is not what you signed up for. Although this example might seem extreme, you have the right to know exactly who will be preparing your taxes – as this could potentially mean the difference of thousands of dollars for you and your family when the dust settles.
√ Be sure they will be available – after April 15th
You should do your best to find an expert who sticks around after your taxes are signed, sealed and delivered on April 15th. There are many moving parts when it comes to your taxes, and questions might arise after filing. You’ll want to be sure you can contact and speak directly to your tax preparer, preferably throughout the year. This is yet another wonderful benefit of working with a real person in your geographical region.
√ Review your return before signing
You have every right to take a good look at your return before signing it. It’s up to you if you want to go through it with a fine-toothed-comb, or if you want to just give it a quick look. But remember, although your tax preparer is the expert and will (hopefully) do everything in his or her power to accurately file your taxes, you and only you are ultimately responsible for your returns. With that said, take an active part and be engaged when it comes to reviewing their work – you’ll both be glad you did. Also, here’s an important note: Never sign a blank tax form.
√ Ask how you will receive your refund
Although this seems obvious, this must be on your checklist. In most cases, your return will either be automatically deposited into your bank account, or you will receive a physical check. Never, under any circumstance, have your tax return deposited into an account that is not yours (i.e. your tax preparer’s account). This is not an option. And if your tax preparer offers it as an option, run for the hills.
Please make good use of this checklist when choosing a tax preparer this year. Although it seems like a simple appeal to common sense would keep you out of trouble, that’s just not the case. Tax time can be very confusing for you and yours. You’ll need a map and compass for the proverbial open sea of tax filing. There’s no need to get lost – or worse – shipwrecked! An honest tax-preparer with a proven history of good work will keep you in the clear and help you to receive the return you deserve.
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