The only thing worse than messing up your own taxes is paying someone who can't do the job.
If you're looking for professional tax help, once you figure out which type of tax preparer to use, then you must sure that person is competent.
Here are five quick tips to help you check out your tax pro.
1. Inspect Internal Revenue Service ID: Make sure the preparer has an IRS Preparer Tax Identification Number, or PTIN. This ID number is required by Uncle Sam of folks who file returns for others for a fee. Note, however, that a valid PTIN is not an indicator of skill, education or expertise.
2. Examine credentials: To find out about a person's tax preparation ability, find out whether he or she has a professional credential, such as Enrolled Agent, Certified Public Accountant, or attorney. These folks must meet standards and generally attend continuing education classes to remain part of the group. They also can represent you before the IRS. The education component also is critical given how often the tax laws change. This year it will matter more since we're dealing with the many Affordable Care Act provisions that are showing up on our tax returns for the first time.
3. Investigate complaints: Check with your state's board of accountancy for CPAs, your state's bar association for attorneys or the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility for Enrolled Agents for any complaints that have been filed. If your state licenses or registers tax preparers -- that's California, Maryland, New York and Oregon -- contact that regulatory office, too, for possible complaints or comments. And don't forget the Better Business Bureau.
4. Find out about fees: Check on the preparer's service fees upfront. Avoid those who base their fee on a percentage of your refund or those who say they can get larger refunds than others. This could be an indication that the preparer will fudge your filing to get you more money so he or she also will get a bigger payday.
5. Get the office hours: Tax concerns don't end when your return is filed, be that in January or on April 15. It takes months for the IRS to get around to giving some returns closer looks. You want to make sure your tax preparer will be around if IRS questions arise.
New online directory: The IRS has added a new tool to help folks take the first tax-help step, finding a good tax preparer.
The searchable directory allows you to find tax preparers in your area who have PTINs and who are professionally credentialed (see tip #2) or who completed the IRS' new voluntary Annual Filing Season Program, or AFSP.
My search of such tax pros in or within five miles of my Zip Code turned up 415 potential tax preparers. In my mother's small town northwest of me, there were 19 possibilities. So I'm hoping that most folks will be able to find at least a few folks with whom they can start their search for tax prep/filing help.
Also over at Bankrate last week, I looked at the recent spate of tax identity theft and its possible effect on e-filing.
I usually post my additional tax thoughts at Bankrate Taxes Blog every Tuesday and Thursday. If you don't get a chance to check them out then and there, check in here over the weekend where you'll usually find highlights and links.
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