While plenty of individuals and married couples elect to file their taxes on their own, many others prefer the additional simplicity and peace of mind that comes from using a professional for personal tax prep. This is especially true for those with somewhat (or very!) complicated tax situations.
Of course, it’s important to use due diligence to find the right tax preparer. You’re putting a lot of trust in them, and there’s potential for them to make tax filing as positive an experience as it can be—or a massive headache.
The following tips for choosing a tax preparer help ensure you sit down with a well-qualified professional who minimizes your tax bill, the chances of errors, and your odds of audit.
How to Pick a Tax Prep Professional
- Don’t wait till the last minute to find a professional tax preparer; you won’t have time to vet them properly, and many of the best become unavailable by a certain point.
- Ask for recommendations from trusted family, friends, and colleagues.
- Research the firms you’re considering.
- Confirm that the agent has an IRS-issued PTIN (preparer tax identification number), which is required for them to be eligible to file taxes on your behalf.
- Review their experience and credentials, including membership in trade organizations and participation in continuing education.
- Look for an agent with relevant specialized experience when appropriate; for example, if you have income from investment properties, hire a tax preparer who’s well-versed in real estate tax law.
- You should be able to start with a free consultation or for a modest fee which may be applied against future work once engaged.
- Inquire up front about fees; you should at least get an estimate. Avoid tax preparers who base fees on your refund, as this leaves you with no idea what you’ll be charged, and it may encourage them to inflate your refund in ways that can cause you problems with the IRS.
- Stay away from anyone advertising or promising a guaranteed refund or refunds that are higher than the competitions’.
- Only use a tax preparer who allows you to receive your refund directly; it’s a red flag if they say it must go through their office.
- Ask if other staff will prepare your tax return, and if so, find out what sort of experience and credentials they have. Make sure their work is reviewed by their supervisor.
- Avoid a firm or tax preparer that outsources any of your tax prep work.
- Rethink working with any agent who doesn’t request W-2s and other important forms and records, or who asks you to sign forms before they’re completed.
- Be wary of anyone who isn’t e-filing. Tax professionals who submit 10 or more returns are required to e-file. If you’re using an attorney or someone who doesn’t primarily do tax returns, this may not be a red flag; however, it’s usually a clear signal that the person isn’t doing nearly as much tax prep work as you assume.
- A good tax professional makes your questions feel welcome and answers them to your satisfaction (keep in mind, that doesn’t always mean you get the answers you want—but that you get definitive answers and clear explanations).
- You should always be provided the opportunity to review your return and have any questions or concerns addressed before it’s filed.
- You should also be provided a complete copy of your return, and get all your original documents back.
- Confirm that the tax preparer offers audit assistance and has experience doing so.
- The preparer should be available to you throughout the entire year, not just during tax season.
- Pay attention to how responsive and professional the tax preparer and support staff are in the initial stages of contact and working together.