Maybe you wasted this past beautiful holiday weekend working on your taxes. Or perhaps, despite warnings about taxpayer ID theft, you still have midnight oil to burn between now and the April 15 deadline. Either way, you have probably mused, for at least a moment, that this will be the last time you do your own taxes. After all, by plenty of measures, tax prep is getting more and more complicated.
So if you are ready to delegate tax work, now is the time to plan for the 2015 filing season. Here’s some help about the choices you face — specifically, on the kinds of tax preparers you might hire to help you.
First off, you should know that hiring someone else to do your taxes might not be the Shangri-La you imagine. Whoever that person is will still require you to provide a lot of paperwork and do a lot of legwork. You might wonder if you are really saving time at all. Sure, it’s a relief to know a professional is doing the math, and that might result in greater accuracy, but even that isn’t certain. In fact, when Congress’ General Accountability Office studied the issue, it found higher error rates on “pro” returns than self-prepared returns.
Of course, that only means not all tax prep work is the same. In fact, in most places in America, anyone can become a professional tax preparer.
“Anyone can hang out a shingle as a tax return preparer, with no knowledge, no skill and no experience required,” lamented Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson in congressional testimony during last year’s tax season.
The Internal Revenue Service has tried to require some kind of license for retail tax preparation firms, but so far, that hasn’t happened. Voluntarily certification is available, and you might ask a retail prep agent if he or she has completed the necessary coursework for that. But only four states — California, Maryland, New York and Oregon — require formal certification for tax preparers. That’s why you might consider moving up the value chain for tax help. That leaves you with three other popular options: Certified Public Accountants, Enrolled Agents, and tax attorneys. Never heard of an “enrolled agent?” You’re not alone. Read on to find out what each designation means.
First, the most common choice for people who need help with various money issues, including taxes. If you’ve spent hours pulling your hair out while trying to do your taxes — particularly if you are part of the growing list of Americans who earn self-employment income — now is the time to start interviewing potential CPAs. Well, not “right” now. Give them a few days to sleep after April 15. Then spend some time getting to know a couple.
Tax prep help is only one of the services that CPAs offer, and it’s probably not the most important one. CPAs can offer yearlong money advice, such as how to set up an accounting system for your small business, or how to do some basic estate planning. If things work as they should, tax time will be (relatively) easy because your CPA will already have a good understanding of your financial picture. Of course, that kind of handholding isn’t cheap. But if you go easy on the financial advice and use a CPA primarily for tax purposes, the costs shouldn’t be too bad. Back in 2013, the National Society of Accountants did a survey and found the average cost for filing an itemized tax return and one state return was $261 for roughly five hours or work. Costs vary wildly based on region and complexity, of course.
How do you find a CPA? It’s always useful to talk with friends, but never forget the lesson of Bernie Madoff, who got nearly all his new clients via friends — never rely wholly on someone else’s judgment of character. You should always do your own background check, verify current licensing, etc. The American Institute of CPAs is a good places to start your search.
When picking a CPA mainly because of taxes, make sure your CPA specializes in taxes. CPAs can have a variety of specialties — from small business advice to estate planning. Pick yours because they enjoy doing the work you need done.
One critical factor: CPAs are certified by states, as opposed to “Enrolled Agents.” We’ll see why that’s important in a moment.
If you have never heard of this designation, it probably means you’ve never had serious tax trouble, so consider yourself lucky. But enrolled agents are making a push into the mainstream lately — they even have a new branding effort called “Enrolled Agents — America’s Tax Experts.”
Here’s why you should consider hiring one: Thanks to their low name recognition and their sole focus on taxes, they can be less expensive than CPAs, and are almost always cheaper than tax attorneys. Also, because they are federally certified, they are a good choice for taxpayers who might need to file returns in multiple states.
It’s an exclusive group — there are only about 50,000 enrolled agents nationwide. Among the chief benefits of an enrolled agent: If you are audited, you can be represented by an EA. Taxpayers with complex returns might also consider enrolled agents. They are tax specialists, and they are required to take 72 hours of continuing education every three years.
How do you find an enrolled agent? The National Association of Enrolled Agents website is the best place to start. You can also verify enrolled agents at the IRS website.
Tax lawyers aren’t only for trouble. Individuals with high net worth or small businesses might consider involving a tax lawyer early on. A tax lawyer can help set up business structures and help you make sensible, defensible tax choices during the year. With this high level of service comes a high price tag — bank on at least $200 to $400 an hour to start. If you need help resolving a tax issue, count on at least $1,500 to $2,000 for even the simplest case, according to TrustedTaxAttorney.net. This cost is the single most important reason you should get to know enrolled agents; they can represent you in an audit, or before the IRS for any tax issue, for a lot less.
Whatever choice you make, it’s important to recognize this critical fact: Even if you get bad advice, and even if you pay someone a lot of money and that someone makes a mistake, you are the one responsible for paying the IRS what you owe. If you underpaid your taxes, you’ll owe the IRS and will have to pay Uncle Sam back with interest. So choose your help wisely. And however painful it is, always double-check the work that’s done.
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Bob Sullivan is author of the New York Times best-sellers Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off. His stories have appeared in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and hundreds of other publications. He has appeared as a consumer advocate and technology expert numerous times on NBC's TODAY show, NBC Nightly News, CNBC, NPR's Marketplace, Terry Gross' Fresh Air, and various other radio and TV outlets. He helped start MSNBC.com and wrote there for nearly 20 years, most of it penning the consumer advocacy column The Red Tape Chronicles. See more at www.bobsullivan.net. Follow Bob Sullivan on Facebook or Twitter. More by Bob Sullivan