Getting a Pro to Help

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

WASHINGTON (AP) About 56 percent of tax filers paid a professional to do their taxes last year, the Internal Revenue Service says. If you decide you want to be among those who turn the job over to someone else, here are common questions and answers about finding professional tax help:

Q: Where do I start?

A: Decide how much help you need. It depends, in part, on the complexity of your tax situation. Busy taxpayers with simple returns may need someone who can do the paperwork on their behalf. Those who experienced a major life change, like divorce or retirement, might opt for someone with more specialized skills. Consider also whether you need help only during the filing season or want year-round advice on tax planning.

Q: Who prepares tax returns?

A: A variety of national firms and individual professionals prepare tax returns. There is no national certification for tax preparers, but certain professionals must meet standards set by their peers. Enrolled agents, certified public accountants, accredited tax advisers and attorneys must meet certain educational and professional requirements. Ask others about their experience and education.

An enrolled agent either worked for the IRS for five years or passed a two-day exam given by the IRS. Enrolled agents are subject to a background test, and they must meet continuing education requirements to keep up with current tax laws.

An accredited tax adviser or accredited tax preparer, certified by the Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation, must also meet education and experience requirements. The organization requires its professionals to take courses on new tax laws and follow a code of ethics.

A certified public accountant must pass a national qualifying exam and meet stringent state licensing and education requirements. Ask whether the CPA devotes most of his or her practice to taxes.

A tax attorney has a law degree.

Q: How do I find a professional?

A: Ask friends, relatives, business associates and others whom you respect as financially savvy for references. Contact professional associations to find accountants, tax attorneys or enrolled agents in your area. Interview several tax preparers before choosing one.

Q: What should I find out before choosing a tax preparer?

A: Ask preparers about their education, experience and knowledge of recent tax law changes, and ask about specialized training if your tax situation is unusual.

Ask tax preparers about fees. The IRS cautions taxpayers against advisers who charge fees as a percentage of your tax refund or who claim they can secure bigger refunds than others. Be wary of preparers who say they can find deductions and credits that no one else knows about.

Ask tax preparers whether they will be available after the April 15 filing deadline to answer questions or represent you in an IRS examination. Any person who prepared your return may represent you for an audit or collection matter. Generally, only CPAs, tax attorneys and enrolled agents can represent you before the IRS in if your case proceeds to the appeal level or beyond.

Ask the preparer how long the process will take and how the preparer checks the accuracy of the tax return.

Q: I've picked a tax preparer. Now what?

A: Organize any tax related information, including tax forms sent by the IRS, your employer and your financial institutions. Collect receipts and documentation for deductions and credits. Go through last year's forms and note new circumstances. Make a list of questions you want to ask the preparer.

Q: My return is done. Now what?

A: Review the return for accuracy. Although someone else prepared it, you're responsible for errors. Sign the return after reviewing it. Never sign a blank return.

Make sure your preparer signed the return, provided an address and included a Social Security number or federal identification number. Ask the preparer for a copy of the return.

If you suspect a tax preparer of fraud, report the activity to the Internal Revenue Service by contacting your local branch office or calling 1 (800) 829-0433.

On the Web:

National Association of Enrolled Agents -

Accreditation Council for Accountancy and Taxation -

American Institute of Certified Public Accountants -

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