7 Must-Ask Questions Before Hiring a Tax Preparer
There are many reasons as to why you may be looking to hire a tax preparation expert to help you prepare and file your taxes this year. Perhaps you've never had to file taxes before, or maybe you've encountered a confusing change in your tax situation this year; regardless, a tax preparer can assist you in making sure you aren't leaving any money on the table and that your taxes are filed accurately. Before you hire a tax preparer to work with you, however, there are some important questions worth asking.
Do You Have a Valid Preparer Tax Identification Number?
First and foremost, understand that all legal tax preparers are assigned a unique preparer tax identification number (PTIN). This number verifies that the tax professional is legally allowed to accept compensation in exchange for tax preparation services. Make sure that your tax professional's PTIN is valid for the current tax year.
It's also wise to ask not only about the tax preparer's credentials, but whether he or she had to complete a background screening before you engage their services. After all, that person is going to have access to your personal information, such as your social security number, birth date, financial account information and bank account numbers just to mention a few.
What Experience Do You Have With My Tax Situation?
No two tax situations are exactly the same, which is why you'll want to find a preparer who has specific experience with your unique circumstances. For example, while any tax preparer should be able to help you complete and file a basic 1040-EZ, you may need a more specialized preparer for more complex tax situations. Perhaps you were married in the past year and you and your spouse are trying to determine whether it makes more financial sense to file jointly or separately. Or, maybe you just completed your first year as a self-employed worker and you don't know the first place to start when it comes to filing your self-employment business returns.
Whatever your unique tax situation, ask your prospective preparer how familiar he or she is with it and how many similar tax returns he or she has successfully handled.
What Kinds of Documentation Do You Need From Me?
While your tax preparer will be taking on the majority of the responsibility when it comes to filling out forms and filing them as needed, it's important to understand that you'll still have some responsibilities as well. Most importantly, you'll need to provide your tax expert with the documentation he or she needs to accurately complete your return. Find out ahead of time what kind of materials your preparer will need from you. Some common documents you'll probably need to provide include:
- earnings statements (W-2s, K-1's, 1099s, etc.)
- income and expenses from your business if self-employed
- receipts for expenses you plan to itemize your deductions
- informational statements for the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) reporting ( 1095-A, 1095-B and 1095-C)
- prior years' tax returns
How Do You Determine Your Fees?
Finding out how much your tax preparer charges for preparing a return and how he or she calculates fees is another important step in choosing the right tax preparation expert for your needs--especially if you're on a budget. There are a few different methods tax preparers may use to determine their fees for any given client. For example, for simple 1040-EZ returns, the preparer may charge a flat fee. On the other hand, for more complex tax situations, it's not uncommon for preparers to calculate the fee based on the complexity of the return, sometimes determined by how many forms need to be completed. While others will base the fee on an hourly rate. Be leery of preparers who base their fee on a percent of your refund, which is both illegal and unethical.
For comparison's sake, keep in mind that the average cost to hire a professional to prepare a basic 1040 is about $250. However, rates can fluctuate greatly based on your situation and even your location within the United States. Regardless of the cost, you'll want to find a tax preparer who is transparent and up-front about his or her fees.
Are You Authorized to File My Return Electronically?
This may seem like a no-brainer, especially in today's age of electronic everything. However, it's a question worth asking because not all tax preparers are eligible for electronic filing on behalf of their clients. This is something that tax preparation experts need to seek additional permission to do. Still, there are numerous benefits to being able to file electronically, including faster acceptance and quicker receipt of your refund (if you're owed one). You can actually check directly through the IRS website to find out whether or not your preparer is authorized to electronically submit tax returns.
Will You Be Around After Tax Season?
Generally, it's best to avoid those tax preparation offices that pop up around tax time and then mysteriously disappear after April. While these facilities can offer cheap services, the problem is that they don't tend to be available for follow-up questions or concerns. For example, if it turns out that there was a mistake made on your return or even a missing form, you may not be able to get in touch with your tax preparer to assist you in making it right. For the best results (and greater peace of mind), you're better off working with a tax preparer who's available year-round and has excellent communication skills.
What Will You Do if I Get Audited?
Let's be honest: the chances of your return being audited are very slim. However, it's still a good idea to have a plan in place in the unlikely event that the IRS audits you. Simply filling the forms out incorrectly triggers many audits and misinterpreting the tax laws is a reason to carefully select a preparer. You'll want to make sure that your tax preparer will step in to assist you throughout the audit process and even represent you as needed. And of course, if the audit was a result of his or her mistake, corrections should be made at no additional cost to you.
These are some of the most important questions to ask a tax preparer before signing a contract. If you're looking for tax preparation experts who are experienced, highly trained, and have passed thorough background screenings, TaxBuzz is here to help.