If you’ve decided that you will not be handling this year’s tax filing yourself, even with the help of an online filing program, there are plenty of professional tax preparers willing to do it for you. The challenge is finding someone you trust with your finances and personal information.
A good first step is to “ask around to your friends and relatives about who prepares their taxes,” says Leslie Kotrba, a certified public accountant (CPA) at Palatine Tax & Accounting Inc. in Illinois. This may give you some options, but ensuring someone is reliable may take some extra work. The consequences of improperly filing your taxes, after all, can be serious. You should consider asking the following six basic but important questions to help determine whether or not to hire any potential preparer.
1. What are your credentials?
A professional tax preparer, such as a CPA or an enrolled agent, should have some certification. Preparers should have passed examinations and, in some cases, taken continuing education throughout the year to stay informed of current tax information. When meeting with a potential preparer, ask to see proof of certifications to be sure he or she is legitimate and capable of preparing your taxes.
2. What experience do you have?
According to Kotrba, another good question to ask potential preparers is about their experience. For example, how long have they been handling tax preparations? Do they typically work with individuals or companies? The more experience, the more helpful a preparer may be.
“Having someone who has the contacts and the knowledge of how to help you when you need help is critical,” Kotrba says.
3. Have you ever had an audit done on a return you prepared?
On the flip side of having lots of experience, Kotrba says you should ask specifically if the potential preparers have ever had any of their returns audited. The answer doesn’t have to eliminate them from your consideration, but this may help you decide whether your return is in good hands. It may also help you know whether the preparer can represent you in the event of an audit.
4. What are your fees?
If you picture your tax return as a nice mid-year bonus, you might balk at the idea of paying much for the preparation. Although you want to avoid excessive fees, professional preparers charge for their services, so ask them upfront about their prices and listen carefully to what they offer for that fee.
“If someone guarantees you a refund, run,” Kotrba says. If the preparer makes an offer that sounds too good to be true, this may be a red flag that you will want to take your return elsewhere.
5. How busy are you or will you be?
As the tax deadline approaches, preparers usually become much busier. While you can avoid this by finding a preparer well ahead of time, you can also ask about how the potential preparers handle their workloads.
“You want somebody who is going to take their time,” Kotrba says. The more time someone takes in preparing your taxes, the more confident you may feel in their performance.
6. Can I review my return beforehand?
Before your taxes are submitted to the state or federal government, you’ll want to review them to ensure all of the information is correct. Therefore, before hiring a preparer, ask if you’ll be given this opportunity.
“Ultimately, the preparer is on the hook for a bad return, but you are on the hook for the taxes,” Kotrba says. You will be held responsible for the outcome of your return, so you want to ask about how the preparer handles the review process. You want to make sure that you’ll have the chance to see your return before it’s filed.
Making your decision
Once you’ve evaluated several preparers, ask yourself with whom you would be most comfortable working. You want to be sure your preparer has the time to assist you, understands your concerns, and is “someone who doesn’t make you feel like you’re asking stupid questions,” Kotrba says.
Finding a reliable preparer may be the start of a business relationship that lasts for years, so do the work necessary to find someone you can trust. Otherwise, you may be adding extra stress to tax time.
Dustin Pellegrini is a senior web producer and writer at Think Glink Media, where he specializes in reporting on identity protection and credit. He studied writing and visual media at Columbia College Chicago.