By Ellen Rose and Felecia Sternbach, Sternbach & Rose, CPAs
Need professional help with your return? Here’s how to find the right person for the job.
As it gets closer to the end of the year, you get closer to having to perform the dreaded chore of doing your taxes. Maybe your return has gotten too complicated to handle on your own, or maybe you just don’t have the time to fill out all those forms. So now you’ve decided you need to hire a professional.
If your tax situation is relatively simple, you probably think you can get by with a commercial franchise preparer. Think again! These preparers may be sufficient if you do not itemize deductions or have no other income except your paycheck. Anything more complicated than that may end up costing you more at these franchise preparers than a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Why? Because these preparers are given a quick course in tax preparation and are much less knowledgeable of the tax code, they may miss deductions that could end up costing you more in taxes. Also, their billing structure is complicated and based on the number of deductions you take and the types of income you have. A CPA generally charges an hourly rate or a flat fee which may be cheaper than the franchise.
A CPA is available to you for advice and help throughout the year. If you have financial decisions to make during the year, this advice could be invaluable. So, most people would benefit greatly from the services of a Certified Public Accountant.
If you’re thinking about enlisting the help of a professional tax preparer for the first time or are searching for someone new because you’re not satisfied with the service you’re getting from your current preparer, follow these four steps.
Step 1: Get a referral. Ask your friends, family and colleagues whether they can recommend a tax preparer. If you are new to the area, check with the New York State CPA society, or the state Department of Education for lists of CPAs in your area.
Step 2: Interview candidates. If you’re trying to hire a new tax preparer during tax season, you might have a hard time finding someone who can sit down with you for a long interview. That’s why it is good to start before the end of the year. However, most tax preparers should have time for a phone interview. If they aren’t willing to give you a few minutes on the phone — or want to charge you for the initial interview — then look elsewhere.
Here are key questions to ask:
- How long have you been in practice? You want someone who has been preparing returns long enough (at least several years) to anticipate problems or IRS challenges.
- What are your credentials? Anyone can hang out a sign claiming to be a tax preparer because there are no licensing requirements. Check the NYS Department of Education and other professional associations (see step 1) to assure that he or she is licensed and has had no disciplinary action taken against him or her.
- Do you have any specialties? This is important to ask if you have a specific need. For example, if you have a small business or if you have rental property, look for someone who has experience handling these tax situations.
- How much will you charge? Find out if he or she charges an hourly rate or flat fee and whether that fee will cover everything or if there will be additional charges for planning meetings and calls throughout the year. Avoid anyone whose fees are based on a percentage of your refund.
- Will you handle my return, or will you hand it off to a less-experienced associate? If the preparer is part of a firm and will not be preparing your return personally, ask if he or she will review it after the associate completes it.
- Will you represent me before the IRS? If you are audited, you want someone who will defend your return.
Step 3: Watch for red flags. Steer clear of anyone who talks about cheating the IRS. You do not want a preparer who pushes you to take deductions, says you don’t have to report certain income or promises to get a refund that will be a certain percentage of what you earn.
Step 4: Mention any special circumstances. Let the preparer know about any events, such as a recent divorce or large lump-sum payment from a retirement plan. He or she should know how this will affect your tax situation.
If you’ve followed all these steps, picking a preparer is easy. You will have selected a knowledgeable professional who will be able to handle all of your specific tax needs and be available if you have questions months, or even years, after your tax return has been filed.