February 15, 2013
The U.S. tax code grows more complicated every year and currently spans thousands of pages – even government experts can't agree exactly how long it is. So it's not surprising that millions of Americans hire professional tax preparers to complete their returns.
Relinquishing the onerous task of calculating your taxes to a professional may save you time and give peace of mind – they know more about tax law than you do, right? But remember: You're still legally responsible for all information on the return. So if the preparer makes a mistake or intentionally defrauds the government, you'll be on the hook for any additional taxes, interest and penalties – even possible prosecution.
The IRS notes that although most tax return preparers are professional, honest and serve their clients well, taxpayers should use the same standards for choosing a preparer as they would for a doctor or lawyer, and be on the lookout for incompetence and criminal activity.
There are several basic types of tax preparers: certified public accountants, IRS-designated enrolled agents, tax attorneys, storefront agents (think H&R Block) and self-employed preparers.
The first three types must meet their own licensing agency's continuing education and licensing requirements and are bound by ethical standards; they're also the only professionals authorized to represent you before the IRS on all tax matters, including audits, collection and appeals. Others may only represent you for audits of returns they actually prepared. Always ask whether they belong to any professional organizations with continuing-education requirements.
Here are tips for choosing the right tax return preparer:
And finally, don't muddy the waters by linking your tax-return fee to buying another product the preparer may be trying to sell, such as a refund-anticipation loan or check, retirement savings account or insurance policy.
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